For the last three years, hundreds of people have flocked to a church in Tyler, Texas during the fall for the annual Peace of Mind Tyler Mental Health Conference. At each event, mental health advocates, clinicians, educators, clergy and those who have lost a loved one to suicide share their expertise or their own experiences about mental health.

In its inaugural year, Kay Warren of Saddleback Church—founded by her husband Rick—stood at the podium and painfully detailed her son’s suicide the year prior. In the months before and after her visit to Tyler, she had been speaking candidly to the public about how mental illness rocked her family.

Much of the feedback following the first conference in Tyler was a mix of elation and surprise. Local interest in learning about mental health and how to effectively address issues within the church was overwhelming.

The running anecdote in East Texas has been that it’s the buckle of the Bible Belt. There appears to be a church on every corner. Strangers are casually greeted with, “What church do you attend?” Faith is a central part of life in these parts.

But according to mental health advocates, historically, there seemed to be missed opportunities when it came to the church addressing mental illness and its effects on families. It’s even more profound in rural areas, since more than half of rural residents—60 percent— live in a mental health professional shortage area, according to the American Psychological Association.

People often turn to their faith to address mental health issues, which is why advocates knew East Texas would be a good place to begin a conversation at the Peace of Mind conference.

Matthew Stanford, Ph.D., chief executive officer at The Hope and Healing Institute and adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine and the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston, has researched how churches deal with mental health, finding that church leaders tend to be unprepared to handle congregants’ mental health issues. His research suggests that the way churches dealt with mental illness isolated its congregants, sometimes leaving them questioning their faith. It doesn’t help that they already have limited or no access to mental health services.

Other studies have shown that few churches have adequate plans to assist families living with mental illness. For example, a Lifeway Research survey showed that the “response of people in church to individuals’ mental illness caused 18 percent to break ties with a church and 5 percent to fail to find a church to attend.”

According to the same survey, “22 percent of pastors agree that they are reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because previous experiences strained time and resources.”

But something is changing.

In recent years, the effort to spread awareness about mental health and treatment has manifested in the forms of tool kits for religious leaders, conferences and collaborations between mental health professionals, clergy and advocates.

In addition, more people are coming out of the dark instead of dealing with shame and stigma. Today, churches and organizations such as The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute are acknowledging both faith and science in the search for adequate treatment. They host events and provide tools for organizations in larger cities that serve as a hub for rural communities, such as Beaumont and Amarillo.

“There are more opportunities for discussion of mental health in places like churches, synagogues and mosques,” says Phil Ritter, chief operating officer at The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.

The change may be just a small part of broader societal changes across the country.
“My perception is there is a general shift in our culture that isn’t specific to church or rural areas. It’s across the board,” explains Andy Keller, president and chief executive officer at The Meadows.

That shift, he said, moved faster as national headlines surrounding mass shootings often brought mental illness to the forefront.

“Sandy Hook was an event that changed the tone,” he says.

Keller also attributes leaders such as Warren who’ve made it easier for people to be vocal about their experiences.

“When we have a church leader like that that’s well known talking about it, it makes a big difference,” he says.

When local advocates felt there wasn’t enough awareness about mental illness in East Texas, the Peace of Mind conference was born. It is a program of the Samaritan Counseling Center, a local interfaith organization that provides counseling for East Texans.

In the organization’s office in downtown Tyler, they take a holistic approach to addressing mental health needs: working with the whole person—mind, body and spirit. They collaborate with faith communities—offering training and resources to area clergy. They’ve been responsive.

“There is a foundation of healing that can happen when we work well with our faith communities,” says Rebecca Lincoln, clinical director at Samaritan Counseling Center.
Seeing the need in underserved rural areas, the organization opened counseling locations in four rural communities: Lindale, Jacksonville, Kilgore, and Henderson.

Rick Ivey, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church Lindale, said pastors are realizing that mental illness isn’t a condition that can be prayed away only. For four years, Ivey has led a 1,000-member church in rural East Texas which averages an attendance of about 350 at each service.

“The growing trend is to look at it more as a medical condition rather than something that is wrong with them,” Ivey says. “Prayer has to be a significant part of helping people who are struggling with mental illness. It’s something that should be in addition to.”
He, too, notices that stigma has been reduced.

“I think it is because of larger exposure to media, television, public service announcements and advertisings for medications. It’s become a little more understandable. There is more openness to it. It’s no longer secretive. It’s not the stigma it once was.”
His church provides space for meetings and a place for resources for clients of the Samaritan Counseling Center.

Advocates are also calling for more awareness and are urging legislators to allot more funding for mental health programs, particularly for rural areas. It’s just part of the work that The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute does. Texas has increased funding for services in the last legislative session, but the state continues to lag in mental health spending compared to other states. So, community leaders continue to speak up.

“Leaders in the faith community are becoming involved in public policy and advocacy to support the mental health system,” Ritter says. “Tyler is a good example of that.” The fact that we’re talking about the issue more in our society is very important and it creates a call to action for the policy leaders in our communities and in our state.”

While there is progress, it is slow. Nonetheless, Keller gives credit to churches for their dedication to healing.

“Communities of all faiths are critical to helping us heal,” he says. “It’s not that people don’t want to be helpful. They don’t know how to be helpful. Churches have a huge untapped role to play that they already play for other diseases.”

He added, “Some churches have moved forward and others have not, but we’re still encouraged to see the progress, although it’s still early.”
Lincoln echoes the sentiment.

“It’s something we have to stick with,” she says. “It takes time.”

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Coshandra Dillard is an award-winning health reporter and freelance writer. She was an Association of Health Care Journalists regional fellow for 2014-2015 and was recognized as a finalist for the National Association of Black Journalists' Salute to Excellence Awards in 2014. Her work has been published in Upscale Magazine, The Crisis Magazine, Folks, and other outlets. She is also founder and editor at Liberate Magazine, a local publication highlighting the lives and concerns of African Americans. Follow Coshandra on Twitter @cvdillard.