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Many pastors don't talk about mental illness

Written by Peter Smith on .

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The first responder to a mental health crisis is either a police officer or a pastor, says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research in Nashville.

Of the two, the police are better trained, he said.

Two-thirds of Protestant pastors surveyed said they talk about mental illness, if at all, once a year or less, according to a survey of 1,000 such pastors around the country. The survey was released Monday by LifeWay and co-sponsored by the group Focus on the Family and a private donor.

If one in four parishioners suffered from, say, cancer, the pastor would probably be talking about it more often, Mr. Stetzer said, and "they should do the same for mental illness."

Only a quarter of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, and an even lower percentage of such families surveyed knew if their church has one. And roughly a quarter of people who experienced mental illness either switched churches or dropped out due to negative responses, although half stayed with their church and found it supportive.

On the positive side, Mr. Stetzer said, pastors were comfortable referring people to professional mental health services as needed, and most favored the use of medication when needed. 

He said that counters a popular perception of religious leaders seeing mental illness as a solely spiritual problem without a medical component. (That perception has a basis in reality, particularly in a 2008 Baylor University survey finding nearly a third of people who were themselves medically diagnosed with mental illness, or a loved one was, reported being told it was directly due to personal sin, demons or lack of faith.)

"There’s a huge conversation about over-medication and we get that, but clearly there’s a comfort level" with medication, he said.

About one-quarter of pastors themselves say they've had experience with mental illness, including 12 percent who were themselves diagnosed. But they're reluctant to talk about it, according to the survey.

Attention has focused on mental illness from a variety of sources, but the evangelical Protestant community was especially rocked in recent years by the suicides of the adult children of megachurch pastor Rick Warren and of the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, Frank Page. Both have spoken publicly and candidly about it.



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