Can Churches Help with Mental Health?

A study of San Antonio churches looks at what happens when people tell their pastors about mental health challenges.

From its earliest days, the H. E. Butt Foundation has sought ways to partner with the community to help those experiencing the distress of mental health challenges. Our founding president, Mary Holdsworth Butt, was the first woman to serve on the state’s mental health board, then called MHMR and now known as Texas Health and Human Services. Her son, Howard Butt, Jr. used Laity Lodge as a forum for sharing openly about his own struggles with anxiety and depression.

Today, mental health continues to be an important part of our mission. In the fall of 2018, the foundation partnered with 13 San Antonio-area Christian congregations and a research team at the University of Texas-San Antonio to study how churches respond to members of their congregations who might be experiencing mental health problems.

“I definitely feel like that’s why we seeded the study—to see what can we learn,” said Perri Rosheger, the foundation’s executive director of constituent relations and capacity building.

As an operating foundation, this territory was new—the foundation does not typically fund research projects. “We just have a serious interest [in mental health],” said Rosheger. “So we felt like if we were going to do any kind of intervention, it would be a partnership where we played a catalytic role.”

Are churches providing comfort and support and other resources when someone is experiencing depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another form of mental illness, or is there a disconnect or stigma with faith leaders and members of their congregations around mental health issues?

The San Antonio Health and Wellness Study found that the five large and eight small congregations that participated in the research seemed to be made up of “people who are happy, people who have high mental health literacy and not a lot of discouragement from seeking professional help for mental health issues,” said Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan, who helped lead the research.

Vaidyanathan, the former director of research at the foundation and current chair of the sociology department at Catholic University in Washington D.C., said data from past studies has shown the church is often the first place Americans turn to for help with mental health issues. What this study hoped to do was find out how churches and faith leaders respond.

The study’s findings are preliminary and, again, only focused on a few churches in one city. Still, Vaidyanathan said he was encouraged by what he saw. “I think it’s good news for mental health professionals that [these] faith communities are quite literate and they have positive attitudes toward the mentally ill,” Vaidyahathan said. “They have the right frame of mind in terms of wanting these people to seek professional help. That’s something I think we should highlight to the community and particularly to the mental health community that the faith community can be an ally in this process.”

Data was gathered for the survey through paper surveys handed out at weekend services, online surveys made available to those churches requesting them, and interviews with church leaders.

“I think it’s good news for mental health professionals that [these] faith communities are quite literate and they have positive attitudes toward the mentally ill.”

Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan

Vaidyanathan said he found it interesting that many church leaders interviewed said they don’t feel like they’re on the front lines in mental health care even though research has shown in the past that church members often seek help for mental health problems from those leaders.

A total of 1,201 surveys were returned with 73 percent done in paper form and 27 percent done online. The average age of the respondents was 67, and many were female. More than 60 percent were white with just 29 percent being Hispanic. The study included congregations from Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and African American Baptist churches.

The survey attempted to measure respondents’ physical and mental health by asking questions about such things as sleep habits and stress experienced in the previous year.

The research found that “[w]hile few respondents report problematic mental health concerns, they do not feel discouraged from seeking help and report a welcoming atmosphere whereby they feel comfortable seeking help from church leaders for their problems.”

Vaidyanathan continues to work to expand the study on a national basis from his new position in the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, Mark Carmona, former CEO of Haven for Hope and former executive director of the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, has agreed to lead Phase 2 of the study here.

Carmona will be working with congregations that want to continue to be involved. He says he will be asking them to identify a need they have based on what they’ve learned from this project. “What do they want to start adopting? What do they want to start doing in their churches?” said Carmona. “Our goal is to help them take what they’ve learned from this study to inform a new approach or tool, one that ultimately many more congregations could adopt.”

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Echo Valley 2020 Campaign offers fitting, lasting memorial honoring Bob Ayres.