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APCE workshop leader: Churches are well-positioned to minister to members struggling with mental health issues

UCC pastor teaches using both personal and professional experience

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Last week’s Association of Partners in Christian Education annual event included an important online workshop on the role churches play in mental health. The Rev. Talitha Arnold, pastor of the United Church of Santa Fe, New Mexico, led the workshop, which was attended by about two dozen people.

“Your presence is a real blessing,” Arnold told participants, “and a blessing to the people you serve.”

In 2010, Arnold was a founding member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, a cooperative effort among the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services, Defense and Veterans Affairs as well as private sector companies and organizations including faith communities. “I really do believe faith communities have an important role in fostering mental health and preventing suicides,” Arnold said while explaining the mental health struggles of her family of origin, including her father’s death by suicide.

Growing up in the church, Arnold rarely heard mention of mental health, even from the pulpit. “If the church can’t talk about those things, it felt like God couldn’t either,” Arnold said. “I think breaking the silence is really important.”

The New Testament holds more stories of Jesus healing people with troubled or unclean spirits or demons than all the other healing stories combined, Arnold said. “He reaches out, listens, shows compassion and offers comfort and hope. If we call ourselves Christians and if healing persons was so central to Jesus’ ministry, probably it ought to be in ours as well.”

Increasingly, “clergy are beginning to see their role as partners with mental health professionals,” Arnold said, and that’s important because among people 10-34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death. For people ages 35-54, it’s the fourth-leading cause of death.

The pandemic increased the risk factors for suicide, Arnold noted, including the loss of loved ones, unemployment and economic upheaval, social isolation, and the lack of access to social services.

The Rev. Talitha Arnold

“But you have to parse the data,” Arnold said. The pandemic “exposed fault lines of poverty, health care access, housing, hate crimes and other factors that impact mental health.” On top of that, the third year of the pandemic “may be more emotionally risky than the first two.”

“Life won’t go back to normal anytime soon,” Arnold predicted.

If youth haven’t returned to church in the way they participated before the pandemic, pastors and congregations have to get creative to stay connected, Arnold said. That very afternoon, the United Church of Santa Fe was distributing family supper bags. Once each month, parents go to the church to pick up lasagna or burritos, fruit and dessert to take home to their family. “The goal is to let parents and kids know God loves them and so does the church,” Arnold said. “How do we do that? With burritos — even if it’s just a five-minute conversation.”

As children and youth ministry leaders, “you can create a faith culture of understanding and openness,” Arnold told workshop participants. “You know your flock. People are more likely to attend a presentation [on mental health] at their faith community than at a clinic or a college.”

Arnold suggested highlighting and repeating, if necessary, biblical stories of faith, including Ruth and Naomi from the Book of Ruth, which Arnold described as “a life-giver for me. They supported one another by pairing up younger and older people.” Then there’s the prophet Elijah, “who asks God to take his life because he is exhausted and fears for his life. God instead gives him food and water and appoints Elisha to help.”

“There’s something going on in our sacred narratives,” Arnold said, “that helps people get through hard times.”

“Build on your strengths and train your leaders. You’re doing a lot,” she reminded listeners. “Take credit for it. … The bottom line is it’s a team effort, and it’s worth making the effort.”

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