Faith Leaders Try to Combat Stigma of Mental Illness and Suicide

Photo by Лечение Наркомании/Creative Commons

LOS ANGELES — Lead pastor Kurt Lange at East Coast International Church north of Boston texted Kristen Kansiewicz, “How do you know if a person is emotionally healthy?”

While that is a big question — one Kansiewicz ended up writing an entire book about, instead of just responding in a text — it’s not uncommon for Kansiewicz, a licensed counselor and staff member at East Coast International Church, to get texts like that as Lange or one of the other pastors is writing their sermon.

Kansiewicz is also the founder of Church Therapy, which provides low cost mental health services in churches and offers training for Master’s-level counselors specializing in Christian integration.

Kristen Kansiewicz. Video screengrab

Her model is about getting counselors in church settings — not only to ensure congregants get the professional resources they need but also, she said, in the hopes of prompting pastors to talk more openly about mental health.

“My presence keeps mental health at the front,” she said. “Decreasing stigma happens all the way from the sermon on Sunday to the way we interact with people who arrive at our church.”

One in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

But historically, faith traditions have been reluctant to talk about mental health and categorized suicide as a sin, often leaving survivors and family feeling neglected and hurt.

“That lack of community, that lack of inclusion, that lack of feeling that you are part of the body of Christ contributes to suicidality,” said author and pastor Rachael Keefe.

Stuck in the in-between

When Matt Stanford, CEO of the Hope and Health Center & Institute in Houston, Texas, first started his career, churches were resistant to even having a conversation about mental health.

Although there are still examples of faith leaders continuing to condemn suicide, over the years, he said he has seen many faith groups starting to move away from viewing suicide as an “unforgivable sin,” and the conversation is starting to change — with Hope and Health Center providing mental health training to about 80 faith communities around Houston and a new training at least once a week.

Matt Stanford. Courtesy photo

But that doesn’t mean faith groups have fully dealt with their past.

“I think the problem right now is that it’s more of a conversation, like, yes, there’s a problem. Yes, we need to be involved. And that’s kind of where it is. It hasn’t been able to move forward yet,” Stanford said.

But that “in-between place,” without a new alternative narrative, is still contributing to the problem, Keefe said.

“If we don’t speak out against the shame and stigma, then we are participating in it,” she said. “Suicide is mentioned seven times in the Bible; not one tells us God’s response.”

The idea of addressing the shame and stigma can be a Goliath-level challenge for some places of worship.

“I think a lot of faith communities don’t know how to address it,” said Melinda Moore, clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University and co-lead for the Action Alliance’s Faith Communities Task Force.

The task force, she said, is “trying to demonstrate some leadership on how faith communities could address the problem of suicide in a loving, prayerful way.”

Moore lost her husband to suicide over 20 years ago. She continued going to church, but, she said, “I did not feel supported by my church.”

She did, however, feel supported by Christ and, for her, that was enough at the time.

“But faith communities can be doing so much more,” she said. “Unless the pastor or the rabbi or the priest addresses the issue of suicide, (parishioners) are not going to know it’s OK to open up about it.”

Bible-centered counseling

Pastoral and biblical counseling have been common in the past and are often still present in churches today. In 2012, Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, created an entirely separate biblical counseling center.

The center focuses on using “biblical perspectives” to help patients and keeps the cost for each visit on a donation-basis; its counselors pray at the beginning and end of each session.

Gene Willis, director of biblical counseling, said they always let people know they aren’t approaching this from your typical clinical basis and that it’s from a biblical perspective — but, he said, that’s why people come.

“People come because they know that,” Willis said. “We want to be different. We don’t want to be your typical analysis where it takes God out of the picture. We put God in the picture.”

Willis said they’ve seen thousands of people since they’ve opened and are usually booked a month out. Spotswood’s senior pastor, Drew Landry, knows that nobody is immune from the “difficult, dark days of life,” including those in the Bible.

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Source: Religion News Service