4 Steps to Starting a Mental Health Support Group in Your Church
Churches across the United States are having intentional conversations about mental health in order to break the stigma and care for their congregants. Many ministries are wondering what more they can do to offer meaningful support, aside from addressing mental health from the pulpit.
One practical measure any ministry can take is to start a mental health support group. These groups provide a safe space for those who are struggling with their mental health to find hope and healing. But where should you start?
Many churches are beginning by attending conferences to learn more. We recently attended the Look Up 2019 Faith Conference focused on advancing mental health in ministry. It was there that we learned the following framework.
Brandon Appelhans, founder of My Quiet Cave – a nonprofit focused on helping educate faith leaders and leading faith-based groups for people with mental illness and their families – lays out four simple steps to starting a mental health support group in your church.
It all starts with preparation and invitation, corporately and individually.
1. Corporate Preparation
Before your church considers starting a support group, Appelhans emphasizes it’s crucial to ensure that your staff is adequately prepared to handle a mental health crisis.
There are many great training programs available, regardless of your location or size. When searching for a corporate (e.g. staff-wide) training program, look for tested and approved methods such as QPR (“Question, Persuade, Refer”), or certified instructors through reputable sources like Mental Health First Aid USA.
“By training your church’s staff to handle a mental health crisis, you can begin to foster a culture of support,” he said.
2. Corporate Invitation
In addition to creating a culture of support on your church’s staff, it’s vital to address the stigma associated with mental health.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness each year.1 That means 20% of your church has likely been struggling with their mental health at one point or another – perhaps even now.
To sufficiently address mental health in your church, people need space to talk about their mental health struggles in a safe, yet corporate environment. “It’s not enough to talk about some abstract person with a mental health issue. Tell a story of a real person people know – with their permission – and if possible, have them tell their story themselves, either in person or over video,” Appelhans said.
Additionally, many pastors struggle with depression and anxiety. Appelhans has encountered pastors who felt comfortable sharing their own mental health struggles with their congregations. These pastors were then able to model healthy ways of dealing with mental health and create space for the mental health issues that already exist in the congregation to come to light.
3. Individual Preparation
Once your ministry has trained its employees and begun to address the stigma corporately, you can begin focusing on the people in your congregation who need support. It’s crucial to have resources available so individuals who are struggling with mental health can find help even while your support group is not yet off the ground.
Appelhans suggests that you line up two qualified point-people who are passionate about mental health, can help build community, and can create positive first steps. Additionally, your church should develop a list of resources in your community for people looking to take their next step.
Identify qualified counselors, medical professionals, community mental health resources, and mental health crisis help. (Reasonable steps should be taken to ensure only reputable organizations that maintain necessary licenses to practice are referred by your ministry.)
Then, post their contact information in visible places such as your church bulletin or your website.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is: 1-800-273-8255.
4. Individual Invitation
Once your church has taken all the necessary steps to prepare for mental health crises, and has developed a culture of support, you’re ready to start your support group.
There are many valuable models for operating a mental health support group that scale to fit your ministry’s goals and resources. Groups can last anywhere between a few weeks and several years.
It’s important to find a mental health advocate who can help facilitate discussion and ensure that groups are healthy and safe for those who attend, Appelhans explains. This person should ideally be a non-staff person who has experience with caring for people who deal with mental illness. (Be sure all candidates are properly screened. Check out this article for best practices on selecting and screening volunteers.)
A counselor in your congregation who is willing to volunteer their time would be an ideal candidate, but the important thing is that they are a peer with experience. This helps attendees feel comfortable and reminds them they are not alone.
Once this person is in place, you can begin inviting congregants to join the group.
Key Points to Keep in Mind
Starting a mental health support group at your church can be a daunting task, but when broken down into these four simple steps, it becomes clear that any church can begin preparing to care for their congregants’ mental health today.
If you’re considering starting a support group, Appelhans suggests you keep these key points in mind:
Try to do things right, but more importantly do things. Action demonstrates that you care, and people who are struggling will take notice.
Much of the conversation around mental health in the church centers around obligation, see the opportunity.
Be prepared for the worst, learn from the rest.
1. NAMI. (2019, September). "Mental Health by the Numbers.” Retrieved October 25, 2019, from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers.