Mental illness: What is the role of the church, temple, mosque?

More than 60 million Americans will experience some form of mental illness this year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That means one in four Americans will find their lives touched by serious depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other form of mental illness, either their own or a family member’s.

In fall 2014, two studies emerged that showed while many people struggling with mental illness will approach clergy before consulting a doctor or other health care professional, clergy are woefully underprepared to deal with them. A Baylor University study shows theological schools do very little to prepare clergy for dealing with the mentally ill, and a LifeWay Research study shows more than 20 percent of pastors say they feel “reluctant” to aid the mentally ill due to time pressures. “Many people in congregations continue to suffer under well-meaning pastors who primarily tell them to pray harder or confess sin in relation to mental health problems,” the Baylor study states.

What is the proper role — if any — of clergy and other religious professionals in aiding the mentally ill? How well are churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship prepared to help the mentally ill? Should mental illness be a concern of religion? Why or why not? And what of clergy who suffer from mental illness? What protocols or services are in place to help them?


Recent developments

In Sept. 2017, the Baylor Religion Survey released findings from a study called “American Values, Mental Health and Using Technology in the Age of Trump.” Among its findings on mental health are:

  • Those who fear hell the most are among the least depressed

In September 2014, LifeWay Research, a Christian organization, published “Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith,” an examination of how the Christian church responds to mental illness. Among its key findings:

  • More than one in five Christian pastors (22%) say they are “reluctant” to help parishioners with mental illness because it “takes too much time.”
  • Twenty-seven percent of Christian churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, according to pastors.
  • Fourteen percent of churches keep a skilled mental illness counselor on staff or train staff to recognize mental illness (13 percent).

Also in September 2014, a study conducted by Baylor University found that seminaries and other theological schools do very little to train clergy in dealing with the mentally ill.

In spring 2013, Matthew Warren, son of Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, committed suicide. The experience prompted the Warrens to launch an education and advocacy initiative with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County and the National Alliance on Mental Illness in March 2014, a program the Warrens hope will make the church more responsive to those among them with mental illness.

Six states — Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Arkansas — allow pastoral counselors to become licensed mental health counselors.



  • Read a paper by the Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder titled “Mental Illness and Families of Faith: How Churches Can Respond.”
  • Read a Sept. 22, 2014, Religion News Service story about the LifeWay Research survey on how the Christian church addresses mental illness.
  • Watch a Sept. 10, 2014, segment for PBS’ Newshour on mental health and religion in India.
  • Read an April 2014 op-ed piece by T.M. Luhrmann in The New York Times about the initiative launched by Rick and Kay Warren in conjunction with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
  • Read a Feb. 2014 statement issued by the New York State Catholic Bishops Conference calling for the church to deal with the mentally ill with more compassion and caring.
  • Read a  Sept. 17, 2013, LifeWay NewsRoom article detailing the findings of LifeWay’s survey on Americans’ beliefs about mental illness and the role of faith in curing it.
  • Read a May 6, 2013, story on the Huffington Post website about mental illness in the family of Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
  • Read an April 10, 2013, Washington Post story about mental health discussions in the evangelical community in the wake of Matthew Warren’s suicide.
  • Read a Jan. 9, 2013, CNN story about a study that indicates people who are spiritual but not religious are at higher risk for mental disorders than atheists, agnostics or religious people.


Statistical resources

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 60 million Americans experience a mental health condition every year. Regardless of race, age, religion or economic status, mental illness impacts the lives of at least one in four adults and one in 10 children across the United States.

NAMI has a fact sheet about mental illness that enumerates how widespread and costly mental illness is, among other things. NAMI also maintains a list of mental illnesses, their symptoms and recovery options.

Religion-based mental health providers and advocacy organizations

  • Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, N.J., offers mental health care services based in the Reformed Christian tradition. Services include counseling and inpatient and outpatient hospitalization and care. Contact 201-848-5200.
  • The Episcopal Mental Illness Network is an educational and advocacy organization within the Episcopal Church. Contact the Rev. Mary Janet “Bean” Murray, [email protected].
  • The Meier Clinics are a nonprofit network of Christian-based counseling clinics in seven states. It was founded by Paul Meier and Nancy Meier Brown.
  • Mental Health Grace Alliance approaches mental health recovery from a Christian perspective. Its main office is in Waco, Texas. It was founded by Baylor University’s Joe Padilla and Matt Stanford. Jenna Hoff is the managing director. Contact 254-235-0616.
  • Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids, Mich., describes its mission as expressing “the healing ministry of Jesus Christ by providing behavioral health services with professional excellence, Christian integrity, and compassion.” Its staff includes 61 psychiatrists and doctors, 116 psychologists, 224 licensed masters-level social workers, 27 physician assistants and nurse practitioners, and12 chaplains. Mark Eastburg is president and CEO. Contact 616-455-5000.
  • Renewal: Christian Treatment and Recovery is a Christian-based mental health program affiliated with Brookhaven Hospital in Tulsa, Okla. Its website says mental illness “can cause Christians to feel abandoned and distant from God. However, by strengthening your spirituality, in conjunction with our professional medical services, you can experience results that you never thought were possible.” Its website includes a page of bios of its doctors and chaplains. Rolf B. Gainer is CEO. Contact 866-428-8690.

Secular national mental health organizations and advocacy groups

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes itself as the largest grass-roots mental illness advocacy organization in the U.S. It maintains a searchable list of state and local chapters on its website. Its NAMI FaithNet is a network of NAMI members who work to educate faith communities about how they can help the mentally ill. Contact NAMI FaithNet at 703-524-7600.

Academic journals and other publications

  • Journal of Muslim Mental Health

    The Journal of Muslim Mental Health is an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed academic journal and publishes articles exploring social, cultural, medical, theological, historical and psychological factors affecting the mental health of Muslims in the United States and globally. It is published through the department of psychiatry of the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State University. Hamada Hamid is the editor-in-chief.


National sources

  • Richard F. Address

    Rabbi Richard F. Address is founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging, an organization aimed at helping the Jewish community navigate end-of-life issues. He previously served as director of the department of Jewish family concerns for the Union for Reform Judaism.

  • Sameera Ahmed

    Sameera Ahmed is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and an assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University in Michigan. She is co-editor of Counseling Muslims: Handbook of Mental Health Issues and Interventions

  • Sally Barlow

    Sally Barlow is a psychology professor at Brigham Young University. She co-authored a chapter on religion and mental health from the Mormon perspective for the Handbook of Religion and Mental Health.

  • Ayse Ciftci

    Ayse Ciftci is an associate professor of counseling psychology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. She was the lead author on a paper that examined the stigma against mental illness in the Islamic community.

  • Barbara C. Crafton

    Barbara C. Crafton is an Episcopal priest in Metuchen, N.J., and the author of Jesus Wept: When Faith & Depression Meet. She manages an online mental health site called The Geranium Farm.

  • Paul Froese

    Paul Froese is a professor of sociology at Baylor University and research fellow for the school’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of several books, including On Purpose: How We Create the Meaning of Life.

  • Susan Gregg-Schroeder

    The Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder is a United Methodist minister in San Diego and coordinator of Mental Health Ministries, an effort that grew from her own experience of depression. She is the author of a paper, “Mental Illness and Families of Faith: How Churches Can Respond.”

  • Marya Hornbacher

    Marya Hornbacher is a writer and nonbeliever who has written widely of her own struggles with mental illness. She is the author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, which explores what spirituality can mean to nonbelievers recovering from a mental illness.

  • Nancy Kehoe

    Nancy Kehoe is a psychologist and a Catholic nun in Belmont, Mass. She is the author of Wrestling With Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness and the Journey to Wholeness

    Contact: 617-484-7387.
  • Aaron Kheriaty

    Aaron Kheriaty is the director of the bioethics program at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. He wrote The Catholic Guide to Depression: How the Saints, the Sacraments and Psychiatry Can Help You Break Its Grip and Find Happiness Again.

  • T.M. Luhrmann

    T.M. Luhrmann is an anthropology professor at Stanford University and the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With GodIn an April 13, 2013, New York Times op-ed essay, she describes herself as a secular observer of evangelical congregations and says “one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.” The essay is titled “When God Is Your Therapist.” She has worked with psychotic homeless women, many who claimed God was their only friend.

  • Mary Janet (Bean) Murray

    Mary Janet (Bean) Murray is an Episcopal priest and coordinator of the Episcopal Church in America’s Episcopal Mental Illness Network. She is based in Little Rock, Ark.

  • Frank Page

    Frank Page is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His adult daughter Melissa killed herself in 2009, and his book Melissa: A Father’s Lessons From a Daughter’s Suicide examines the biblical truths that have sustained him since the tragedy. Contact through Roger S. “Sing” Oldham, vice president for convention relations.

  • Kenneth Pargament

    Kenneth Pargament is a professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. His research addressed religious beliefs in various traditions and health. He also researched how the elderly who struggle with their religious beliefs and hold negative perceptions about their relationships with God and life meaning have an increased risk of death, even after controlling for physical and mental health and demographic characteristics. Among other research, he has studied religious coping and the mental health of Hindus in the U.S., spirituality and coping with trauma, spirituality in children with cystic fibrosis, and religion as a source of stress, coping and identity among Jewish adolescents. He can also speak about the relationship between atheism and mental health.

  • Jerry Park

    Jerry Park is an assistant professor of the sociology of religion at Baylor University in Waco. His specialty is in racial, ethnic and religious identity. Ask about his research into religious consumption – he delivered a paper, “What Would Jesus Buy: American Religious Consumption in the 21st Century,” to the 2006 conference on the Scientific Study of Religion – and how it pertains to the popularity of New Age media products.

  • Craig Rennebohm

    Craig Rennebohm founded the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle in 1987. The chaplaincy provides services for the mentally ill, including homeless people, and training for congregations to support families experiencing mental illness. Rennebohm now trains others for mental health chaplaincy.

  • Matthew Stanford

    Matthew Stanford is CEO of the Hope and Healing Center and Institute in Houston and an expert on mental illness and the church. He is the author of Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. He has studied how seminaries prepare students to address mental illness within faith communities.

  • Ed Stetzer

    Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as executive director of the school’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He was formerly the executive director of Lifeway Research, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. He blogs on a variety of subjects related to American evangelicalism for Christianity Today.

  • Lindsay Wilkinson

    Lindsay Wilkinson is an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, where she studies medical sociology, aging and social stratification. She has assisted in several Baylor religion studies, including research on religion and mental health.

International sources

  • James Davies

    James Davies is a  senior lecturer in social anthropology and psychotherapy at Roehampton University in London and a  psychotherapist. He wrote an article in the winter/spring 2011 edition of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin“The Rationalization of Suffering,” about the role of suffering and faith in therapy.


Regional sources

In the East

    In the South

    In the Midwest

    • Amy Gilbert

      Amy Gilbert is chair of the graduate department of counseling at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Ind., where she teaches in the master of arts in clinical mental health counseling program.

    • The Jewish Community Mental Health Coalition of Overland Park, Kan., consists of Jewish Family Services and the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City. In September 2013, it launched an outreach education program to the greater Jewish community about mental illness. Contact via Jewish Family Services, 913-327-8250 or 913-327-8250, [email protected].

    In the West