Counseling without Condemnation: Mental Health in Places of Worship

Growing up in a Southern Christian Baptist home, mental and psychological wellness wasn’t a topic of discussion. If we were feeling down prayer or self-reflection was the remedy.  Prayer doesn’t typically change circumstances overnight, but I was so tired of waking up and having a cloud of resentfulness or pity hovering over me. At times I felt as if loved ones just couldn’t grasp the funk I was in. The more knowledgeable I was about self-care the more I invested in speaking with college counselors and faith leaders who had experience working in behavioral health. Everyone processes stressful situations differently, especially people of various faiths.  The great part about advocating for mental wellness is being able to level others back to a safe state where they can perform activities of daily living and for people of faith that includes worshipping! 

Faith-based leaders can play a role in normalizing behavioral healthcare. According to NAMI, “Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18–44.” On Thursday, April 28th 2018, Baptist Health held its Faith and Mental Health Conference, hosted at the Jacksonville Public Library. This conference was developed after public health professionals identified mental healthcare as a recurring need in multiple zones of Jacksonville, Florida. The Office of Social Responsibility partnered with faith-based leaders and mental wellness advocacy organizations to create an inclusive discussion on how clergy leaders, the community, and health professionals could advise, refer, and encourage individuals who are seeking a safe haven for mental and emotional treatment in their places of worship. The keynote speaker was Rev. Dr. Franklyn Richardson, senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, N.Y and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Breakout sessions included: Faith and Stigma, Spirituality and Addiction, and Senior Isolation and Dementia. Faith and Stigma focused on the root of why the church has typically been unable to properly treat mental distress. Ideas included: the lack of education on mental health in the early years of developing faiths, the misquoting of scriptures and the adopted fear of questioning the supernatural has hindered the progression of effective counseling in facilities built on love, redemption, and charity. Clergy leaders must understand their role, be flexible with how they deliver counseling services, and know when something is out of their scope of practice. Senior Isolation and Dementia discussed the umbrella term of Dementia and how loved ones and caretakers can better emotionally and financially prepare for a more hands-on obligation. Staff from AgeWell expressed signs to look for when the dementia has progressed and informed participants on their services. They also mentioned self-care, which many caregivers tend to put on the backburner. Spirituality and Addiction emphasized how substance abuse can be one of the hardest disorders to be unbiasedly counseled on. Key topics included figuring out what faith best fits the client; an inherited religion could cause harm if one does not agree with its theology. Substance abuse can alter one’s understanding of morals and ethics and bring on self-blame. Creating more holistic treatment programs, which intertwine spiritual practices, to fulfill psychological and emotional needs can give dependency individuals an empowered outlook on recovery.

Another reason why I’m so glad I got to experience this event was because I have a nephew who has Adult Schizophrenia and lives at my home. The misconceptions of Schizophrenia make it hard for me to tell extended family and friends about him. The more I interact with him and the more I study the Bible I have learned to love him unconditionally, at times he doesn’t have control of his actions and what he says. At times this causes frustration and conflict within the household, but my family is patient and kind; we accept all of him, including the unknown, just as we accept the difference is everyone else who comes through our door. At the conference I learned that there’s not a one size fits all for being normal. We all possess different talents and struggles, that doesn’t make us any less than the next.

Mental illnesses are common and should be treated with the same emphasis and respect as less stigmatized conditions. Believing in a faith should give you peace of mind. Faith leaders must understand that and use discernment, discretion, and compassion. It is imperative to use these skills when addressing mental health in any place of worship. If we do not, we risk pushing followers away from treatment and from the nurturance that a faith-based community offers. For most believers, there is an understanding that their being is both physical and spiritual, but somewhere down the line, congregations have concealed the invisible being as a means of avoiding being ridiculed and ostracized. Regular, preventive, measures, such as workshops and support groups, should be considered in faith-based organizations so that conversations around mental health aren’t taboo. Start by making your worshipers feel they have the lay authority to intervene when unusual changes occur with other members. This can be effective by hosting a Mental Health First Aid training for youth and adults and understanding that risk factors can be moreso a combination of genetically and environmental/social influences than spirits/curses and vulnerable activities that may be considered sinful.


National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

Substance Abuse and Mental Health (SAMHSA):

Adult and Youth Mental Health First Aid:

Baptist AgeWell

Center for Disease Control (CDC)

This blog post was written by NHC FL member, Shakeira Herring.

Shakeira serves at Baptist- office of Social Responsibility as a Health Educator.