Introduction to Mental Illness Congregational Toolkit

UCC Mental Health Network
Congregational Toolkits on Mental Health Challenges


Mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.  Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are disorders of the brain.  These illnesses are medical conditions that result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life when left untreated.

Anyone can have a mental illness.  One in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year.  One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder.  About one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder.

Most mental illnesses are treatable.  Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan, which may include medication, psychosocial treatments, and other support services.

Impact of mental illness:  Mental illness can disrupt a person's ability to work, care for himself/herself, and carry on relationships.  It affects every aspect of life. However, because mental illness may not be immediately visible to others, the person can be negatively judged as being weak, lazy or uncooperative.   This lack of understanding can lead to the stigma of people with mental illness.  

Friends and family members feel the impact of mental illness experienced by their loved one.  Those feelings can be varied, and family members, friends and caregivers need to be supported in the midst of their experiences.  Some might feel protective of their loved one.  Others may feel embarrassed by the social stigma associated with mental health challenges.  Still others may feel angry.  All may feel helpless to provide support and encouragement.  This range of feelings is common, and friends and family members may feel all of these at different points and should be encouraged to seek professional counseling as needed.

People who live and struggle with mental illness need community support and continuity of care to move towards recovery.

In the U.S., the annual cost of mental illness is estimated to be $79 billion, mostly reflecting the loss of productivity.

What clergy/staff need to know  

Faith community leaders are in a unique position to offer fellowship, prayers, referrals and support to individuals with mental illness. It is important to:

  • Learn when to refer people to mental health professionals and where to refer them when the need arises by going to the Caring Clergy Project site. 
  • Stay in touch with the person with mental illness and his family after you make a referral.  People with mental illness and their family members need your ongoing support.
  • Start a spiritual support group for people with mental health challenges and their families in your church.  For resources that will help you structure the support group, go to the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness resources page and find the "Starting a Spiritual Support Group in Your Congregation" flyer and the sample guidelines for a spiritual support group.
  • Start a mental health ministry in your congregation. Again, go to the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness resources page and find the flyer that outlines the steps to starting a mental health ministry.
  • Become informed about mental illness through reading and accessing NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) resources, including their education website, Family-to-Family course, and NAMI meetings. (See "Where to find local resources" below for more information about NAMI.)
  • Remember: Mental illnesses are as individual as the people who experience them. Each mental illness has different symptoms and the ways in which those symptoms may manifest themselves may vary in each person.
  • Encourage your congregation to treat people with mental illnesses the same way they treat people with other illnesses. Offer to visit them when they are hospitalized. With their permission, ask your members to send them cards and bring them meals when they are away from church or experiencing a mental health crisis.
  • Talk about mental illness in your sermons, classes and adult forums, especially when you are addressing compassionate outreach, social justice and erasing stigma and discrimination.
  • Learn about the local resources in your community by contacting the local NAMI group, county Mental Health Department or other mental health provider.
  • Know your limits.  Compassion, understanding and knowledge go a long way. But safety is always essential.  

How your congregation can help

            Activity ideas
·         Identify one or more people who are willing to learn more about mental illnesses and to help educate the congregation that these are no-fault brain disorders for which effective treatment is available.  This could be done through presentations to various groups in the church, using bulletin inserts and newsletter articles, and displays of educational literature.
·         Plan a Mental Health Awareness Sunday. This would be an opportunity to invite NAMI to come do a presentation to the congregation, have printed educational materials available, and have educational bulletin inserts.
·         Encourage community groups to use your facility for support groups, educational forums and social events.
·         If the church has a peace and justice ministry, encourage them to get involved in the systemic problems that affect people with mental illness.  More people with mental illnesses are in jails and prisons than are in mental hospitals.  Programs for people with mental illnesses are under- funded and eliminated quickly when budgets need to be reduced.  Many chronically homeless people also live with chronic mental illnesses.

            Handouts (available from NAMI website)
·         NAMI Fact Sheet:  Mental Illness: Facts and Numbers
·         NAMI Mental Illness Brochure:  "Mental Illness: What you Need to Know" (PDF file, 24 pages).

           Where to find local resources
·         NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness     
      Toll-free help line is 1-800-950-NAMI.   NAMI has chapters throughout the country and offers the understanding that only those with the lived experience of mental illness can provide. NAMI has nine education programs offered in thousands of communities. NAMI equips and trains grassroots volunteer facilitators who provide individual and family support groups. Through the NAMI HelpLine, volunteers respond with free referral, information and support
·         2-1-1  Information and Referral (   This is a national agency that streamlines resources in different communities, provides free and confidential information and referral throughout the country. 

Annotated resource list

·         The UCC Mental Health Network  provides resources for understanding and support within the UCC.
·         Widening the Welcome provides information from the UCC conferences, located under the "resources" tab.
·         Mental Health Ministries is an interactive web-based ministry to provide educational resources to help erase the stigma of mental illness in faith communities. 
·         Bridges of Hope is a PowerPoint slide presentation created by NAMI FaithNet that examines the troubled waters of mental illness and the two strong bridges that can help:  faith communities and NAMI.  
·         Pathways to Promise is an interfaith cooperative that offers liturgical and educational materials, program models and a caring ministry with people experiencing a mental illness and their families. 
·         Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour public education program that helps people identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. It introduces the risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems, and an overview of common treatment.  Participants learn a 5-step action plan to help an individual in crisis to connect with appropriate professional, peer, social and self-help care. Mental Health First Aid is offered in many areas throughout the county.
·         Mental Health America is an advocacy organization that works to inform, advocate and enable access to service. It has useful information on mental health conditions and includes sections on medications and clinical trials.

Share your experience:  What worked?  What didn't?