How faith leaders can get a grasp on the mental health crisis

(RNS) — The COVID-19 pandemic was the first time America’s mental health crisis became obvious to many. Quarantined at home, often with children deprived of peer contact or with adults who had lost jobs, we saw for the first time the chronic depression, anxiety and rising suicide rates that had already been boiling beneath the surface of American life.

Faith leaders were perhaps more acquainted with the mental health challenges in our congregations, but we too have been slow to reckon with the pervasiveness of the crisis and the role we should be playing in the mental health of those with whom we share the highest of highs and lowest of lows.

In May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, clergy can begin to grasp how to meet these challenges. Pirkei Avot, an ancient rabbinic text, teaches, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Like many of my colleagues, I often sit with congregants who describe their struggles. Some are bereft over the death of a loved one. Others have difficulty getting out of bed, unable to find silver linings that allow them to face the day. Due to the stigma associated with mental health services, few seek medical treatment. Ministerial advice and guidance, therefore, can be the only protective barrier standing between congregants and a potentially dangerous situation. 

Three years ago, I asked, what if we brought mental health services directly to them? 

That question gave birth to the Sinai Temple Mental Health Center. In 2020, as the pandemic took hold, our synagogue hired a full-time licensed clinical social worker to help assess and map out the mental health needs of our community, including that of clergy and staff. The social worker offers one-on-one short-term counseling, runs our bereavement groups and offers wellness programs for the community.

The lessons we learned are profound: When mental wellness becomes part of the fabric of a faith organization, stigma is lessened because mental health is engrained in our daily vocabulary. Whether congregants are caring for an ailing parent, mourning the death of a loved one or suffering from depression or another mood disorder, the presence within the congregation of a mental health professional can serve to remind them: “I thought I was the only one. Now I know, I am not alone.”

(Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay/Creative Commons)

I have witnessed this dynamic in numerous ways over the past three years. After the death of a young father in our congregation, she met with other parents to help them process not only the family’s tragedy, but their own questions. Parents couldn’t help but wonder, “If he died, what does this mean about my own life? How do we move with this pain?” They wanted to know what was developmentally appropriate to share with their children about the death.

She also reached out to the clergy. As we buried a beloved member of the community, she gave us room to grieve ourselves.

Helping congregants deal with other hardships, she has connected families who are dealing with a loved one suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, forming a cohesive micro-community of support and friendship. 

While it may not be feasible for every house of worship to hire a clinician, it’s still possible to bring mental health resources closer to your constituents by following a few precepts.

First, ground mental health in the lessons of your faith. The biblical story of Hannah depicts what might be diagnosed as depressive symptoms, as Hannah is unable to have children, leaving her husband to ask his beloved wife, “Why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad?” It teaches us that mental health struggles, a normal part of daily life, nonetheless deserve careful attention and treatment. Clergy can reinforce these lessons from the pulpit.

Second, be informed. Consider bringing in skilled clinicians to offer suicide prevention training and mandated reporter training to help spot child abuse and elder abuse. At the very least, know the signs of suicide risk factors, what constitutes suicidal tendencies and thoughts and how to report someone who is contemplating suicide or how to recognize and report abuse to protective services.

Third, create a list of community mental health programs to which you can refer congregants. You are not expected to be both faith leader and therapist or hold space for each mental struggle your congregation is facing. Seek out recommendations for child therapists and couples therapists who are taking on new clients. Acquaint yourself with counseling centers that provide sliding-scale payment options. Which online therapy programs are available in your state? Keep an eye out for mental health educational offerings or speakers in your area that will better the lives of your congregants.

Lastly, consider sharing the cost of a mental health clinician with another congregation. Faith leaders spend countless hours creating sanctuaries of solemnity and safety. What a blessing it is to provide mental health resources in a person’s own house of worship. Whether the clinician is helping a congregant think through steps in placing their parent in an elder care facility or consulting with the clergy person over particular end-of-life issues, the guidance is invaluable.

We may not be able to solve the mental health crisis within our nation, but as faith leaders we have both a deep responsibility and a unique opportunity to help our communities normalize conversations about mental health and lessen stigma. Our attention to mental health may be the thing that allows our congregants to see godliness within themselves and ultimately, walk on the path of hope yet again.

(Rabbi Nicole Guzik, a trained marriage and family therapist, is co-senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, one of the largest synagogues in Los Angeles. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Previous ArticleNext Article