Stepping Up to Help Mentally Ill, Clergy Also Need Support

Houses of worship need professional assistance to serve congregants in crisis.

Posted Mar 05, 2019

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So many of the problems plaguing our mental health system come down to scant resources. There is simply not enough government funding for the housing, clinical services and crucial follow-up support required to make a significant difference in the lives of those with serious mental health issues and their families. But advocating for real funds often feels fruitless. The activists pressing state and federal lawmakers for additional dollars are no less than heroic in their diligence and stamina, especially in the face of partisan gridlock at the federal level.

Yet there is reason for optimism, as more than ever non-government organizations – namely houses of worship – are stepping up to help those with mental health challenges as well as substance abuse issues. Some have begun to organize professionals and volunteers to be available to consult with those in need. Others have taken the next step to establish an identified group, department or formal center to provide consultation and referral to those who seek a roadmap of how and where to get help for their loved ones and often themselves.

This important work deserves recognition as do the clergy who have long served as vital resources for individuals, families, and communities across the country. Trained to offer spiritually based emotional support, they have the trust of millions who seek their guidance when facing devastating and isolating issues. They represent a safe place to turn, free of judgment or criticism. And like a physician, therapist or attorney, their confidentiality is guaranteed.

However, clergy are often at a loss when confronted by individuals and families desperate for advice and assistance specific to mental health and substance abuse. Well-versed in healing, comforting the sick, and spiritual advising, they may not have the answers for those who need to navigate the complex and confusing mental health system, especially in the face of the extensive misinformation about the realities of diagnoses, best practices for treatment, legal minefields, issues of cost and insurance coverage.

To best help those in their communities, the clergy and congregants need training, education and the availability of professional resources expert in mental health and substance abuse issues, particularly legal matters like involuntary commitments, mental health warrants, guardianship and orders of protection. These all necessitate expertise in issues of mental capacity, medical reasons for psychiatric symptoms and advance directives, to say nothing of the other options a dedicated mental health attorney can suggest and advance, including psychiatric interventions; retention of social workers or mental health case managers, geriatric care managers; and other wrap-around, think-out-of-the-box solutions.

In the face of lacking government assistance, houses of worship are poised to fill extensive gaps that plague our mental health system. The efforts of the clergy and the communities they serve can be significantly more impactful with education, training, help and guidance of those clinical and legal professionals trained in mental health who can offer their input and expertise to make a difference in the lives of those confronted everyday with the challenges of mental illness and substance abuse.