Stigma is an overarching term which encapsulates the prejudicial attitudes and beliefs directed towards individuals with distinguishing characteristics. This prejudice is entrenched into different areas of the social fabric, including the characteristics of race, gender, wealth status or faith. Unfortunately, studies have shown that mental health stigma is widespread within society (Crisp, Gelder, Rix, Meltzer et al., 2000). The harsh reality is that mental health stigma is embedded even amongst environments which are most meaningful to our personal identities, including within families and churches. For instance, amongst some ethnic groups, cultural stigma casts a shadow of shame and disgrace over family members with mental health concerns. This stigma is also existent within churches around the world, which has discouraged members from sharing about their mental wellbeing during times of fellowship. Therefore, it is essential that stigma is combatted within churches to ensure a safe space is available for all persons who are experiencing mental health concerns. In this article, I will focus on three elements which I believe are fundamental to addressing mental health stigma within churches:
- Open Discussion;
- Support Networks.
Open discussion is crucial in breaking the veil of stigma which shrouds over the topic of mental health. Because mental health is societally treated as a taboo topic, it is crucial that open discussion is encouraged within church when it comes to matters relating to mental health. It is anticipated during prayer time of fellowship groups that prayer points relating to spiritual and physical health are raised. However, I have observed that it is very rare for people to raise mental health concerns as a prayer point, and on the odd occasion that it is raised, it is generally met with an awkward and prolonged silence which discourages the individual from further sharing. Discussion is vital in addressing the stigma because it allows the topic of mental health to be more normalised amongst different facets of church interaction. Actions that can be taken to address this stigma include:
- explicitly praying for the mental health of the congregants during pastoral prayer and bible studies;
- encouraging mental health related discussions during sharing time in fellowship groups; and
- being more intentional towards checking in on others’ mental wellbeing during conversations.
Another initiative is for those who have experienced mental health concerns to share about their personal experiences. Whilst it is understandable that one would feel intimidated at the thought of sharing a personal testimony on a topic as personal as mental health, I have found it highly encouraging to witness brothers and sisters in Christ sharing about how God has used their challenges to deepen their faith and enrich their spiritual growth. The comfortability of a church to openly discuss mental health matters is a crucial first step towards breaking down the stigma which has haunted it for too long.
Mental health education
One of the most subtle instigators of stigma is the lack of education on mental health. The lack of awareness and understanding towards the signs, symptoms and underlying causes of mental health conditions can perpetuate stigma through actions or words, with this marginalisation at times extending to church circles in different forms. Take for instance the depressed individual who is misunderstood as ‘lazy’ and ‘uncommitted’ for non-attendance at church, or the teenager with ADHD who develops a notorious reputation for being restless and distracting during youth group. This lack of understanding can also be exhibited through words; consider how often it is that phrases such as “I am so OCD about this” or “I’ve been so bipolar recently” are used colloquially, when OCD and bipolar disorder are two crippling conditions which severely affect the lives of those affected by them. The common dominator which binds the above examples is a lack of understanding towards mental health. It is worth noting that developing an informed understanding of mental health takes time and effort, even professionals are constantly seeking to deepen their understanding into their areas of specialty. However, there are avenues which will allow church members to cultivate their understanding of mental health. For example, churches can:
- encourage those who have experienced mental health challenges to share about their experiences;
- promote seminars or events which address different mental health topics;
- invite professionals to educate members on different facets of mental health; or
- introduce books relating to mental health into their libraries.
In addition to attending church initiatives, members can also invest personal time in educating themselves, which in turn will facilitate a more appropriate response to those who are struggling with mental health challenges. Over time I have found my reading and research to be invaluable towards developing a deeper understanding, which then allows me to be better prepared whenever I engage into a conversation with someone on matters relating to mental health. Education in mental health is crucial towards minimising stigma, with both the church and its members having a significant role to play.
Stigma serves as a major obstacle towards individuals opening up about their mental health challenges. Support networks within church are instrumental towards encouraging those struggling with their mental health, as it provides the love and care which is so desperately needed when the individual is in his/her darkest and loneliest hours. Have you ever tried to hide something which you felt embarrassed about because you thought others would perceive you differently? Unfortunately, the fear of judgement is a coercive force which convinces those struggling with their mental health to hide their difficulties, which more often than not leads to further worsening of the mental wellbeing. Establishing support networks at church is vital towards breaking down the fear of judgement which often acts as a barrier towards individuals sharing about their mental health struggles. Support networks can be established through avenues such as:
- a support system which ensures individuals with mental health concerns are cared for by a support person or group;
- a support system which ensures the family of those struggling with mental health concerns are cared for by a support person or group;
- leaders of church groups being more intentional towards caring for the mental wellbeing of their respective groups;
- educating church members on how to care for those struggling with mental health challenges; and
- the church ensuring that its members have access to resources and contacts for professional support.
A church with a strong support system will provide the encouragement and comfort needed for individuals to share about their personal experiences, concurrently fostering a culture which enables those experiencing mental health struggles to feel supported and loved.
Throughout the Gospels, we read of Jesus showing love to people who would have been stigmatised by society – such as the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Luke 8:43-48), the sinners and tax collectors at Levi’s house (Mark 2:14-17), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-26), and many others who for different reasons were marginalised by society. We need to follow Jesus’ example (1 John 2:6) by loving and caring for those who are struggling with their mental wellbeing. In order to eradicate the stigma which generally affiliates with the topic of mental health, a united effort will be required from the church through the encouragement of open discussion, the education of its members, and the integration of support networks across all aspects of church life. This united effort is essential to fulfilling our vision of fostering a culture of love and understanding towards persons affected by mental health concerns.
by Enoch Hui