Task force to provide resources and training to help Episcopalians respond to mental health challenges

Statistics on mental illness in the United States in 2021 show a country facing significant mental health challenges. Image: National Institute of Mental Health

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[Episcopal News Service] An Episcopal Church task force is working to provide resources to help church members and clergy better understand and assist people who are facing various forms of mental or emotional distress, at a time when 90 percent of Americans believe that the country is in a mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statistics in a report from the National Institute of Mental Health help paint the picture of a nation full of people who are struggling:

  • In 2021, there were an estimated 57.8 million adults in the United States with some form of mental illness, described as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. This represents 22.8% of all US adults.
  • The proportion of young adults, ages 18-25, with any mental illness who received mental health services (44.6%) was lower than that of youths ages 26-49 (48 .1%) and those aged 50 or over (47.4%).
  • When mental illness becomes severe with functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities, it affects 14.1 million adults, representing 5.5 percent of all U.S. adults.
  • The prevalence of severe mental illness was highest among American Indian/Alaska Native adults (9.3%), followed by adults reporting two or more races (8.2%).

The Task Force on Persons with Mental Illnesses was created in 2018 and reauthorized by the General Convention in 2022 with a mandate to develop and deliver resources, trainings and curricula in pastoral and ministerial mental health care and to develop and share resources for the Episcopal Church.

The group’s chairman, the Rev. David Gortner, told the Episcopal News Service that helping church members better understand mental health challenges begins with destigmatizing mental illness, as well as helping to advocate for people with mental health issues. mental health and their families so they remain part of the wider community. We want to frame this as someone who is part of God’s beloved community, Gortner said.

That work has special significance for task force member Luis Collazo, a Puerto Rico hospital administrator, who told ENS by email that in many Latin American societies, mental illness is surrounded by misunderstandings and discrimination. The task force’s work can help foster open and compassionate conversations about mental health and dispel harmful stereotypes by promoting a more inclusive understanding of mental well-being, he said.

Gortner said the task force has placed a big emphasis on first aid for mental health because it can help people across the church understand how to recognize and assist people with mental health issues, just like first aid training helps people to respond to physical injuries to keep alive until the EMT arrives.

Mental health first aid, she said, offers those who are trained the ability to come to the side of people who are in distress, whether it’s a long-term, chronic illness or an acute situation. You’re not a counselor, you’re not a mental health specialist, but you are someone who recognizes signs and symptoms and who knows how to interact in ways that can be helpful, she said.

Gortner, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and nearly two decades of experience serving in Episcopal parishes and seminaries, said the task force has been working to put mental health information and expertise into the hands of Episcopalians in three ways:

  • Provide mental health first aid instructors in all nine Episcopal Church provinces to train people in their dioceses.
  • Create one-page handouts describing mental health topics, including mental illness, depression, anxiety disorders, trauma, schizophrenia and related thinking disorders, and bipolar disorder for download and easy distribution.
  • Develop a curriculum for clergy and seminarians that focuses on mental health, mental illness, and ministry.

Collazo echoed the need, especially as access to quality mental health is often limited in some places in the Caribbean and Central and South America. In those places, she said, training such as mental health first aid and Episcopal Church work can help support policies that prioritize mental health care and even identify gaps in existing mental health services. She can also equip congregations and clergy with the knowledge and skills needed to provide empathic and informed support to people with mental illness.

Plans to train people throughout the church who in turn will become instructors in dioceses and parishes ran into a budgetary problem last year, Gortner said. While the task forces are functioning and a budget has been approved by the General Convention, no specific allocation has been made for this task force and thus evaporated into general funding for interim bodies, he said. When the task force met in Cleveland in March of this year, Gortner said $35,000 could be reallocated to the task force, which will cover most of the cost of training first aid instructors for mental health, which he expects. to take place this fall.

Under current plans, instructors will not charge to offer the training for three years, asking only that their expenses be covered. The lessons offered locally, Gortner noted, could extend beyond the church to members of the wider community.

The handouts will be aimed at people with little knowledge of mental illness and provided in easy-to-understand language. In each double-sided one-page flyer, Gortner said, task force members needed to focus on what’s most important to say about each topic so the information would be useful to a broad range of people, clergy, church members, , healthcare workers and those themselves with mental illness.

The task force is also working on a curriculum for clergy and seminarians that will expand what mental health first aid provides and include elements of pastoral and spiritual care. One purpose of this training, he said, will be to help equip clergy so they can be a better resource and connector for people who are struggling with mental health issues.

Beyond that, clergy also need specific knowledge about how they can help the families and caregivers of people with mental illness, as well as the congregations of which they are members. There is education and modeling and training to be done within congregations about how to make it a hospitable place, Gortner said, how to be a good companion to people who are struggling with mental health issues, and also how to safeguard a congregation, from as some people with certain types of mental illness may seek to harm themselves or others.

Imagine this training being offered in a series of modules, just like the Safe Church training used at The Episcopal Church. And like that formation, he would like to see this new curriculum be required for all who seek ordination or are already ordained, given the need.

Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former communications director for the Diocese of Kansas.

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Image Source : www.episcopalnewsservice.org

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