Congregations Combat Growing Mental Health Challenges

Source: Living Lutheran

Susan Schnelle, pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran in Austin, Texas, knows all too well the devastating toll of mental health crises among young people in the United States. Schnelle’s congregation lost a member to suicide, and in her own family, she recently discovered that a relative had considered taking their own life.

“We don’t really know who is dealing with issues of mental health, and we can make guesses and assumptions and get it wrong,” the pastor said. “It was a shock and surprise to me when it happened.”

According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September 2020, the suicide rate among young people ages 10 to 24 increased by 57.4% between 2007 and 2018. The global pandemic has upended lives and left many feeling isolated, so mental health problems may increase even more over the coming years.

Schnelle and her co-pastor, Karl Grönberg, began to see an uptick in mental health issues among the young people in their congregation, but they felt unprepared to handle those situations.

So, Gethsemane applied for an ELCA Mental Health Ministry grant. These grants are awarded by the ELCA for collaborative efforts between ELCA entities and partnered service organizations to provide training and education about mental health issues. Gethsemane received its funding in fall 2019 and launched a mental health ministry in partnership with its local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“The first … event was just wonderful,” Schnelle said. “It was ecumenical, and we even had some people from the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod join in.”

Creating connections and sparking communication about mental health has been a priority for the Northeastern Minnesota Synod for several years. After seeing the number of synod deaths by suicide increase, leadership applied for an ELCA Mental Health Ministry grant that allowed it to launch a youth mental health ministry.

“I wanted to have these conversations within a faith context,” said Catherine Anderson, synod minister for discipleship and Christian community. “There’s a plethora of resources out there, but how do you curate that and have it speak through who we are and in a faith context?”

The synod recognized the impact the pandemic would have on mental health and adjusted its efforts to respond to that need. “We pivoted quickly and revamped some of the discussion guides, put together some new ones that are COVID-specific, and have some other resources,” Anderson said. “We have these mental health moments, short little snippets to build resilience in young people.”

Mental health awareness permeates all the programs provided by Lutheran Family and Children Services of Missouri (LFCS), from foster care and adoption to early childhood education and behavioral health.

The social ministry organization serves the entire state, offering a number of programs to help children and families. Mike Duggar, president and chief executive officer of LFCS, likens its training programs, such as mental health first aid, to performing CPR in a choking situation rather than filling the role of a therapist.

“It’s about equipping people to recognize, respond and refer,” Duggar said. “We want as many people as possible, especially in churches, to at least respond to individuals who might come into church, and recognize they might be having issues and get them to someone to help them.”

Duggar said the church plays a critical role in reaching those who may be in crisis. “If you think about this from a faith-based perspective, you might be sitting in the pews—when we get back to some kind of new normal—you might go to church because your life is out of control and you’re struggling with issues,” he said. “And wouldn’t it be great to talk to someone who can recognize that you’re going through something and put you in touch with someone who can help?”

Duggar also said that, while some congregations are more open than others to incorporating mental health training and programs into their ministries, he hopes all congregations will take a hard look at how they approach those who may be struggling.

Source: Living Lutheran