Sooner or later nearly every family is confronted with situations that may or may not be a mental health problem. For example:
- Your 3-year-old isn't developing speech.
- Your 10-year-old is uncharacteristically hostile and defiant.
- Your 17-year old is using recreational drugs and falling behind at school.
- Your spouse seems profoundly upset and dysfunctional a week after the new baby is born.
- Your brother admits that when he stops drinking he has the shakes and starts to feel crazy.
- You get lost driving home from work one day and can’t explain what was wrong.
In each of these scenarios, you might not know what to do, what to expect, how to ask for help. If the behaviors you are seeing are life threatening or severely disruptive, call your local mental health crisis line or or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is the nationwide lifeline staffed 24/7. If a veteran calls, they are routed to a special veteran's line.
But in many cases, you are not sure if the problem is a mental health crisis or not. How long should you wait before you move into crisis mode? What is your role? What steps should you take? In the face of uncertainty, it’s nearly universal that we start out wanting to keep it all "in the family." We may consider it a matter of pride that we should be able to cope on our own.
In the face of this kind of uncertainty, our church communities can offer a much larger resource than our immediate family. Ask for their support in sorting out what is going on. If your congregation has a parish nurse, that may be a good place to start.
How Can I Work with My Congregation?
Four tips for asking your pastor for help with a potential mental health issue
- Make an appointment with your pastor. Don’t try to manage this as you are filing out of church after the service. Show up at that appointment determined to speak freely, not feeling that you have to protect yourself from shame or embarrassment. Remember that a pastor is professionally trained to hold confidence. For most people/problems, the act of organizing your thoughts well enough to explain what you are worried about to your pastor will significantly improve your grasp of the situation.
- Accept your pastor’s offer to pray with you. More than likely, your pastor’s prayer will not ask that the situation will somehow be transformed, but will ask for God’s grace to be with you as you figure out how to wrestle with this problem. It is you who will be transformed from a person of unfocused fears and anxieties to one who will be up to the task of getting the help you need to resolve this challenge.
- If you are comfortable with it, ask your pastor to include this issue during prayers from the pulpit. Give your pastor guidance on how to word the prayer to avoid embarrassing your family member. By praying with your church family, you will be rejecting the idea that mental health issues should be governed by stigma and the code of silence. If appropriate, ask your pastor to let others know you would like support from the congregation.
- If your pastor suggests you or your family member seek professional help, ask your pastor for a referral to someone he or she trusts. If your pastor doesn’t have a referral list, call your local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) affiliate to see if they can provide you with a list of local service providers. You can also contact Mental Health America to see if they have an affiliate in your area that can offer a provider list. (Clergy: Get tips for building and managing a referral list and for making effective referrals on the Caring Clergy Project website.)
How Do I Get More Information?
If it does turn out to be a mental illness, educate yourself about the various mental illnesses. Attend a lecture or class or use the Internet. Good places to start include the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Institute of Mental Health.
There are many times when silence is a strength and patience is a virtue. But in the face of serious brain-based illness, silence only serves to strengthen the stigma. Patience only serves to postpone the option of effective treatment.
Pray a lot. Talk to others. And remember: Treatment works.