Study uncovers barriers to addressing mental health issues in the PC(USA)


About 6,000 people participated in surveys commissioned by Compassion, Peace & Justice

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

A steering committee met at Columbia Theological Seminary last fall to discuss the new Presbyterian Mental Health Network. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Although Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members and leaders desire to address mental health issues in their communities and churches, many feel unprepared to do so.

That’s according to a churchwide study recently conducted on behalf of the leadership staff of the Presbyterian Mental Health Initiative called for by the 2018 General Assembly.

The study was commissioned by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Compassion, Peace & Justice Ministry, which is responsible for implementing the initiative.

“The purpose of the study was to get an overall picture of mental health ministry across the PC(USA) at this point in time,” said Donna Miller, Associate for Mental Health Ministry within CPJ. “The study helped clarify that churches are often in the role of ‘first responders,’ but many don’t feel equipped to respond when someone is struggling with mental health. The study also showed the need to address stigma and make churches safe places to talk about mental health struggles.”

For the study, the PC(USA)’s Research Services last year surveyed five different demographic groups — church members, ministers, local church leaders, mid-council leaders and seminaries — as part of an effort to take a broad look at mental health ministry within the PC(USA) and to identify strengths as well as areas for improvement.

About 6,000 people, including nearly 4,000 ministers, responded, and more than 2,000 individual comments were received, many expressing gratitude for the study and the attention being paid to mental health by the PC(USA). The study generated nearly 400 requests for follow-up information about resources, Miller said.

The outpouring of responses “helped us to see the level of interest and motivation, and it helped us to see where it is that people are looking for help and what the barriers are,” she said.

The top two ranked barriers for members, church leaders and mid-council leaders were “not knowing how to respond to an individual showing signs of a mental health condition” and “lack of knowledge about mental health issues,” Miller said.

In the study, many ministers indicated a need for more training, with 46 percent rating themselves as less than capable of responding to certain mental health concerns that can arise in ministry, according to a summary by Research Services.

“In the ministers’ comments, over and over again, ministers brought up the need to feel more equipped in terms of referring, so how to refer, when to refer, where to refer, which is something that requires a lot of local knowledge,” Miller said. “A number of ministers commented on the importance of knowing the difference between spiritual and mental health care, and recognizing when to refer.”

For those who sought training, 61 percent said that the training has been effective, according to the summary.

Other survey findings include:

  • Ninety-seven percent of members know someone who has or previously had a mental health concern.
  • Forty-three percent of members say their church has provided support or prayer groups in the last 12-18 months  for people facing mental health concerns.
  • Forty-nine percent of members say the church isn’t equipped to welcome people with significant mental health concerns into the daily life of the church.
  • Ninety percent of members are unaware of funds, information or resources available to churches for mental health ministries.
  • Fifty-four percent of church leaders indicated that their church is interested in learning more about mental health ministry, but only 30% indicate that they are equipped for that kind of ministry.

“PC(USA) members, leaders, and ministers want to address the issues of mental health and mental illness in their communities and churches but do not know what to do, or what resources are available to them and, in general, are unprepared to act,” the summary notes.

The study is part of a two-year Mental Health Initiative adopted by the 223rd General Assembly in 2018, the 10-year anniversary of the Comfort My People policy statement on serious mental illness. The initiative also includes a $250,000 grant program and the creation of the Presbyterian Mental Health Network.

In addition to calling for the churchwide study, the 223rd GA asked for a report back to the next General Assembly (June 2020) with recommendations for specific activities to focus and enhance mental health initiatives in congregations, mid councils and seminaries going forward.  This report, prepared by Presbyterian Mission Agency staff, includes eight recommendations informed by the study findings and will be considered by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board next week at its meeting in Baltimore.

Among other things, the recommendations call for “capacity building” across the church in the skills of mental health first-aid, suicide prevention and “trauma-informed responses to mental distress and trauma-informed pastoral care.”

Recommendations also call for a focus on the skills of “companionship” to better walk alongside individuals with mental health concerns and their loved ones, and for the church to advocate with and for people with mental health conditions “to create safe and stigma-free communities for all.”

The report points to the need for staffing and funds to support mental health efforts. The recommendations include extending funding for staffing of the Mental Health Ministry an additional two years and extending funding for mental health ministry grants.

“While a solid foundation has been laid with the recent launch of the mental health ministry grant program, website, and Presbyterian Mental Health Network (PMHN), this work is still nascent and in need of support,” according to the report.

Survey results and a copy of the report and recommendations being considered by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board are available at

To sign up for more information about the Presbyterian Mental Health Network and learn more about the overall PC(USA) Mental Health Initiative, you also can go to that site.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?