Conversations surrounding mental health and mental health awareness have shifted dramatically over the last 10-15 years. This week represents the annual Mental Health Awareness Week presented by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Youth Specialties had the privilege of recently interviewing John Sloss of Unbound Living. John is a licensed Mental Health Therapist with a background in youth and family ministry. John can be reached via his website or by email. John shares with us some unique perspectives answering some of the big questions related to the different levels of mental health as it relates to students, families, youth workers, and churches.
Each day this week, we’ll zero in with John on a specific relationship with mental health. Today is Mental Health + Church.
What is some helpful language for a church to adopt in caring about mental health?
Use empathic language, normalizing language, supportive and loving language. Normalizing mental health struggles within the context of a caring community are paramount. Those of us in the field of mental health care don’t ever stigmatize, generalize, or assume. We normalize the mental health struggles of the individuals we work with. We offer love, empathy and relationship as the foundation for the work they have in front of them.
The church can help this work greatly by understanding, and communicating, that struggles in mental health are normal and not an indicator that your faith is poor, or your relationship with God is struggling. Knowing that it is okay to struggle and that you have a place in a faith community in the midst of your struggle offers incredible support that is hard for therapists to replicate within a session hour.
What are some ways you’ve seen mental health growth positively impact discipleship?
Discipleship is about growth and process. So is an individual’s journey in caring for their own mental health. The most rewarding aspect of my job is sitting with a client as they honestly and authenticly look at themselves and commit to loving themselves more each day. For them to discover, or rediscover, their own beauty and worth is an honor to behold. To give themselves permission to be in progress, rather than perfect, is an exercise in self-grace that is so life-giving.
I believe the most impactful discipleship is to model authentic and wholehearted living, rather than to simply speak about it. How, then, can this type of whole-hearted living not impact discipleship in a positive manner? To communicate self-worth as independent of performance, as being wonderfully made not because of what you do, but simply because you are, is to step into the image of God.
What are the 2-3 things that churches need to stop doing/thinking with regards to mental health?
Churches need to stop ignoring mental health. Mental illness is not the result of poor faith, it is the result of being human. The entire foundation of the Christian faith is that we are humans in need of God. So embrace your humanity in its entirety, which includes mental illness and mental health care.
Second, ask for help. I’ve spoken often of this, but have a licensed mental health therapist, or a dozen, on speed dial for referral purposes. Build a relationship with these therapists, don’t do this blindly. Go to coffee with local therapists, understand how they work, and why they do this work. Find some that resonate with you and who would be willing to be a resource for speaking engagements or as a referral for services.
Finally, step into the process of healing for someone with mental health. Your job as a community of care is not done simply because you referred someone to a therapist. Any therapist worth anything will identify natural supports in a client’s life. These supports are vital to their ongoing process of healing and health, and a faith community is one of the most important supports one can have.
What are some tools to help create safer spaces in churches for mental health to be discussed and developed?
I wish more pastors were open to round table discussions with mental health therapists. A time to simply have the pastoral team come together with a therapist and engage in dialog, be it around topics or questions. Therapists themselves may be tools used to equip the pastoral team to care better for the faith community they lead.
The other tool is self-awareness. Become aware enough to recognize the limitations of your skillset. Be curious and humble enough to ask questions, and to seek support. Pairing self-awareness with a referral base on speed dial is a logical progression.
Lastly, create an atmosphere of loving care in the midst of process. None of us “arrive” to completion this side of heaven. Yet there is love and beauty in the journey itself, and the obstacles that accompany it are normal and to be expected. Journey together with understanding, compassion and grace.