The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that mental illness affects one on five people. That is true for people sitting in church pews every Sunday morning. However, mental illness has been something most churches do not understand and fail to address.
Churches should be places of hope and comfort, places for healing of the body, the mind, and the spirit. People suffering from severe mental illness should be treated with the same compassion and support as those suffering from any other physical illness, but instead the issue has often remained in the shadows. The way to shine a light on mental illness within our church is through intentional training and education.
The church has long recognized a need for this work. In 2005, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) appointed the Task Force on “Serious Mental Illness”. As a part of the task force’s work, it surveyed the church’s membership on Mental Illness in 2006. They discovered:
- One in five members, one in four elders, and two in three pastors know someone in their congregation who had been treated for or diagnosed with mental illness.
- Hardly any described their presbytery or synod as giving “a lot” or “a fair amount” of attention to persons with mental illness.”
- In general, when it comes to mental illness-related skills, most ministers do not believe that their seminary trained them well.
In 2008, along with these findings and their significant research, the 218th General Assembly adopted a policy statement on serious mental illness called Comfort My People. Included in the policy statement were a number of mission initiatives to be implemented by the Stated Clerk, General Assembly, Presbyteries, Seminaries and Congregation. These initiatives ranged from educational programs to support groups to providing basic services—among a host of other tangible action items.
With respect to the larger mental health dialogue in the United States, an updated version of this policy would serve as an instrument for God’s love in the lives of those who still feel as if they are living in the “The Land of Exile” within their own communities.
This year is the 10th anniversary of this profound policy statement, and there is a significant amount of work yet to be accomplished at every level. The Comfort My People (CMP) document still holds tremendous value and necessity for people of the Christian faith, and most especially our Christian leaders. At the same time, over ten years the medical and social understanding of different mental illnesses has increased.
The original resolution has made a difference. Embracing the charge from the CMP document, over the last several years, members of Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas have implemented a mental health ministry. Their ministry has enabled channels of communication to be opened for members suffering from mental illness and their families who provide support. This ministry has also created a space for stories to be told about ways in which they have felt exiled or stigmatized by their church community.
In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” Churches are remarkable in embodying this sentiment for people and families impacted by a wide variety of medical ailments. Christians often show their support for these families with casseroles. In many churches, mental illness is not a “casserole concern,” despite the exhaustion and heavy burden that comes with it. Churches are the cornerstones of compassion, care and encouragement for all people, but often have not been accessible for those impacted by mental illness. It is time to treat mental illness for what it is, a biological disorder of the brain, a physical illness just as cancer and diabetes are physical illnesses.
Therefore, an Overture was authored to help provide the spark needed for more churches to provide mental health initiatives within their congregations and communities. In recognition of its tenth anniversary, the Comfort My People document needs to be reimagined and reinstituted as a priority within our denomination and put into practice within our presbyteries, congregations and seminaries. With respect to the larger mental health dialogue in the United States, an updated version of this policy would serve as an instrument for God’s love in the lives of those who still feel as if they are living in the “The Land of Exile” within their own communities. Moreover, the mission funds allocated to this initiative would provide the foundational support needed to ensure that persons who suffer from mental illness are not passed by on the side of the road, but are gathered up, comforted and welcomed into a place of hospitality.
The hope of this movement is to significantly grow awareness and education about mental illness within our denomination. The aim is to move our denomination forward from a policy statement to faithfully developing and implementing the content of the Comfort My People document.
Specifically, [10-11] overtures the 223rd General Assembly to:
1. Recognize the 10th anniversary of the “Comfort My People: A Policy Statement on Serious Mental Illness”1 approved at the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and to acknowledge the relevancy it still holds for our church and society in 2018.
2. Establish a $250,000 grant to be used to implement the provisions of this overture. The funds will be used to develop plans of action and resources that will be used by presbyteries, congregations, and seminaries of the PC(USA) to further educate these entities within PC(USA) regarding serious mental illness issues with the intent to provide a foundation for action within the denomination.
3. While it is acknowledged that all of the recommendations within the “Comfort My People” statement are worthy of implementation, this overture focuses on those action items that are foundational to any development of long-term policies and plans for action within the PC(USA). Grants to be awarded will therefore focus on the following recommendations:
a. Presbyteries: Recommendations 6.a.–d., g, 10. (pp. 8, 10).
b. Congregations: Recommendations 9.a., d.–k., o., q., t. (pp. 9, 10).
c. Seminaries: Recommendations 14.a.–e. (p. 11).
4. Conduct a review and evaluation of the actions that have been taken since the policy statement was approved, with a report to be presented at the 224th General Assembly (2020).
a. Survey of presbyteries, congregations, and seminaries to evaluate how these organizations have responded to the policy statement’s recommendations.
b. Based on survey results, recommend specific activities designed to focus and implement measures to enhance mental health initiatives in presbyteries, congregations, and seminaries.
5. Review, update, and present a second edition of “Comfort My People” for approval at the 224th General Assembly (2020). This review and update would examine terminology, facts, findings, hyperlinks, and add any additional resources (i.e. websites, books, movies) published since 2008 that would add value to the statement.
By implementing these recommendations, pastors, church leaders, seminaries, presbyteries and congregations will learn more about mental illness. With this education, they will be empowered to provide people with resources for early treatment and support. Through these initiatives the church can not only change lives, but can save lives.
Now is the Kairos time to recognize the truth and wisdom of the CMP document and to implement its recommendations. God is calling the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) to be a prophetic voice within our various ministries contexts to comfort God’s people. May it be that we demonstrate our commitment to serve those who live with mental illness and their families/communities in the process of healing and wholeness.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Mental Health By The Numbers.” https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers (accessed June 5, 2018)
Research Services, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Mental Illness: The Report of the February 2006 Presbyterian Panel Survey.” Louisville, KY, 2006. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/panel12-feb2006.pdf (accessed June 5, 2018)
Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. “Comfort My People: A Policy Statement on Severe Mental Illness.” https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/3-serious-mental-illness-2008.pdf (accessed June 6, 2018)
Overture [10-11] as submitted to the 223rd General Assembly by the Presbytery of Mission (accessed June 6, 2018). https://www.pc-biz.org/#/search/3000227
Author Bio: Josh Robinson is Husband, Father and Senior Pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. He began intentional engagement with mental health after years of hearing stories of how the Christian church has isolated persons and families suffering from a mental illness. He and his team have been active fundraisers for Austin’s annual NAMI Walk (one of the largest and most successful mental health awareness and fundraising events in the country).