The Church as a Hospital

Luke 5:31-32 The Message (MSG)

Jesus heard about it and spoke up, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting outsiders, not insiders—an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out.”

As an educator who is licensed as a mental health professional and an ordained minister with the United Pentecostal Church International, I thought providing a response to articles about the recent tragic events of suicides by people of faith. It is my intention that both perspectives would give some insight into what faith and the mental health communities can do both more and less of when treating people of faith living with mental health issues.

There are many scriptures in the Judeo-Christian bible that reference the physical and spiritual body of the church as a place of safety, refuge and healing for the sick, wounded, hurt and lost.  The church is supposed to act as a hospital: a place of help, hope and healing for all manner of diseases.  I would like to submit that if we are to truly be an example of Christ’s teaching in words and in deeds then we need to start looking and acting like a place of help, hope and healing for mental health disorders as well.  Suicidal thoughts and behaviors affect people of every race, ethnicity, age, culture, and faith. (Hedegaard, Curtin & Warner, 2018). This is not a subject we can hide from any longer.  It is present in the pulpit, choirs, small groups and every facet of life for people of faith.  

In current news, you may have read about the death of some high-profile faith leaders who recently died by suicide.  According the World Health Organization (WHO) close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year which is one person every 40 seconds (WHO, 2019). Suicide is the second leading cause of death globally for people ages 19-29 (WHO, 2019).  In 2016, suicide was the 18th leading cause of death globally (WHO, 2019).  There has been a steady rise in the number of suicides every year since then.  In the United States from 1999 through 2017, suicide rates increased for both males and females (Hedegaard, Curtin & Warner, 2018).  Suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of the death in the United States (Hedegaard, Curtin & Warner, 2018).

For the sake of privacy, I will not mention anyone by name but the recent suicides of people who had faith in God is a direct signal to something more troubling than the acts themselves.  As a spiritual leader and a Doctor of Behavioral Health, I am in the trenches everyday battling and pushing back against the stigma which is still very present in our churches, synagogues and mosques.  For years, spiritual places of worship have ignored and demonized the person of faith living with mental health issues and disorders.  The solution in the past until more recently has been: If we ignore it, maybe it will go away.  The problem with this response and thought process is counterintuitive to what the place of worship is supposed to be.  As a place of help, hope and healing, we must allow for open, honest and transparent conversations without judgement.  As a behavioral scientist who believes in God, I assert that God himself made science and science proves God.  There is no way to have one without the other.  In the early stages of my development as a behavioral scientist, I was surprised to find Judeo – Christian values threaded throughout theories of counseling.  Unconditional positive regard (UPR), a concept developed by renowned American psychologist Carl Rogers, is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or what they have done in the past. UPR is a principal found in the context of client-centered therapy (Rogers, 2003).  Unconditional positive regard is one approach to therapy that always resonated with me.  It is an attribute Christ demonstrated throughout his earthly life.  Jesus was known for meeting people wherever they were, ministering God’s unconditional love toward mankind.  This type of ministry requires having open, honest and transparent conversations about tough subjects.  It’s time to start having some hard conversations about mental health and people of faith.  Mental health disorders are common among people of faith regardless of age, denomination, gender or ethnicity. 

The faith community has the “talk” right.  We talk about being made whole and transformed into the image of Christ.  However, this must not be done according to judgmental standards and belief systems.  These judgmental standards and belief systems can cause people to feel shame, guilt and to be dishonest about mental health concerns and other issues.  The faith community needs to practice more UPR and less judging because after all, the church is a hospital.  What better place for those who are hurting and in need of a safe place to heal and be restored than a place of worship.  

The mental health community has the right idea about providing a safe, non-judgmental environment where patients can drop their guard and discuss hard issues, they face every day.  The mental health professionals have it right when it comes to addressing systemic issues that prevent and or impede the patient’s ability to move toward a healthier, well balanced version of who they are.  What the mental health professionals leave out of this equation is the spiritual component that make up this whole person.  When treating people of faith, mental health professionals should use the patient’s faith as a tool to move the patient forward and get them unstuck.  Faith can be a protective factor against suicide.  However, faith alone should not be the only approach for protective factor against suicide.  

The faith and mental health communities should join in cooperation in the battle of removing the stigma of mental health within the faith community. Mental health professionals and faith leaders working together can provide a safe place for those living with mental health disorders to start getting the help that they desperately need.  Mental health professionals are trained in treating mental disorders, unlike most faith leaders who complete seminary or bible college where treating mental health disorders are not a part of the educational process for pastoral care.  Mental health professionals and faith leaders working together can bridge the gap between these two communities which are often at odds.  The faith and mental health community share this common goal of helping people.  If we were to combine our efforts and resources toward removing the stigma of faith and mental health, then and only then are we truly helping people of faith help themselves as mental health professionals and as the faith community.  No one should ever be afraid of seeking help for mental health issues especially in a faith community.  As a voice for those who cannot heal, defend, feed, clothe or care for the orphan and widow, the church is responsible for meeting these needs.  The church should be a safe place and the first line of defense for addressing the mental health issues within today’s world.