Here are some ways you can open your doors wider and welcome people with mental illness. Some aren’t super hard. Some are. (But, I’m here to cheer you on). Give them a try? Tell me about it?
1. Preach about it: Include people with mental illness in sermon illustrations and stories. And, (please!) not exclusively as people needing saving by neurotypical saviors.
2. Be intentional about language: Avoid saying “crazy” or “insane”. Learn the word “neurodiversity”. Avoid saying “committed suicide” (try “died by suicide” instead).
3. Support groups: Form groups for people with mental illness and for families of those with mental illness. Put a poster on the bulletin board so visitors and longtime attendees know this is an option.
4. Referrals and pastoral care: Have a great list of counselors and services to refer out to. But, don’t use significant mental illness as an excuse not to provide pastoral care. Spiritual seeking, longing and questioning is perhaps at it’s strongest in times of mental and emotional distress.
5. Welcome psychiatric service dogs (and all service dogs): These dogs do the valuable work of accompanying people with mental illness in daily life. Educate the congregation that these are not pets and ADA mandates their access. Place a sign by the door to make clear these four-legged helpers are welcome.
6. Replace fear with love: Mental illness brings with it some stories, thoughts, and behaviors that can be scary for those experiencing them and those around them. Replace your fear with conversation with people with mental illness and with education about the facts. For example: talking about suicide does not make someone more likely to follow through with suicide.
7. Stock the church library: Place books on the shelves that support those with mental illness and faith.
8. Prayer and liturgy: Pray out loud for people’s mental and emotional well-being. Get used to the words “depression” and “anxiety” being spoken into the microphone. Try explicitly welcoming people with mental illness or who may be feeling depressed in the liturgy.
9. Programs and education: Make your congregation a place where people learn more about the mind and mental health.
10. Signage: Get creative, or be plain but clear. Make sure people with mental illness know they are welcome. I promise, we are searching for signs, physical ones are a good starting place.
11. Tell your story: From pastors in the pulpit to lay folks in coffee hour, the more we’re open with our own stories, the safer we make the space for others to be open with theirs.
Break the silence and be a voice for change and stigma-breaking in your church. Let church be a place to be your whole self and experience the love and grace of God and the community. Let church be a place to be fully present mind/ body/ and spirit.
Remember, this isn’t insider/outsider, us/them stuff. Mental illness effects your Sunday School teacher, Deacon, Mission Trip team member, and that cautious visitor in the back pew.
With love and knowing we’re called to do better,
Rev. Dr. Ciarán Osborn (he/him)
Rev. Dr. Ciarán Osborn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, currently serving as Clinical Spiritual Advisor at Recovery Centers of America in Danvers, an inpatient drug and alcohol recovery center. Prior to this position, he has served as Pastor of several UCC churches in the Boston metro area. Throughout his ministry, Rev. Ciarán has officiated weddings, baptisms, and memorial services in the wider community.
Rev. Ciarán also lives with chronic mental health conditions. He writes, teaches, and preaches regularly on the topics of mental health, mental illness, and faith. Rev. Ciarán writes for the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network. Ciarán is a board game nerd and hiking and Krav Maga enthusiast. His family lives in the Boston area and they share their life with numerous dogs and chickens.