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Today in the Mission Yearbook

New program gives faith leaders mental health skills


Pittsburgh Theological Seminary pilots ‘Hope and Healing’ program

July 3, 2021

Dr. Helen Blier leads the “Hope and Healing” program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She’s also the director of Continuing Education. (Contributed photo)

A continuing education program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is teaching rural faith leaders how to better respond to mental health crises.

The first iteration of the program — “Hope and Healing: Mental Health First Aid Training” —included about 20 participants who took part in a three-session course offered by the seminary’s Continuing Education office, with assistance from the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute.

The course included case studies as well as first-aid training, which taught participants how to quickly assess mental health issues and make appropriate referrals.

“What we wanted to do was to equip these pastors to be the equivalent of spiritual and mental health EMTs,” or first responders, who could step into a situation and know what to do, said Dr. Helen Blier, project director.

“From our first to our third session, we were able to notice an observable change in the confidence and comfort level participants had in responding to issues of mental health,” said Blier, the seminary’s director of Continuing Education.

“Healing and Hope” was envisioned as an in-person course but had to be moved online because of the pandemic.

“We redesigned the whole curriculum from the ground up,” Blier said.

At least two more courses are planned, including one next March for pastors who minister to youth and teens.

“The teen one will focus on issues that typically surface in teens and young adults,” such as suicidality, cutting and social isolation, Blier said.

PC(USA) involvement

“Hope and Healing” is funded with the help of a $10,000 grant from the Presbyterian Mental Health Ministry, one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Donna Miller, associate for the Presbyterian Mental Health Ministry, said she’s excited about the pilot.

“Given COVID-19, it couldn’t be more timely, and they were able to make the shift to a virtual format, extending its potential reach,” Miller said. “Seventy percent of the nearly 4,000 ministers responding to our churchwide mental health survey thought more training in recognizing and responding to mental health issues arising in pastoral ministry would be helpful.”

“This curriculum covers key content areas cited in ministers’ survey comments,” Miller said, “so it’s no surprise that the first pilot cohort had twice as many applicants as available slots.”

Participants learn how to do mental health triage, which refers to a particular skill set that pastors can use to respond appropriately in situations, such as when people report hearing voices.

The first session also included some time for self-care and encouragement.

Participants “were able to support each other and lift each other up in a way that was not just really lovely but, I think, a game-changer for many of them,” Blier said.

The recently completed course was aimed at faith leaders in southwestern Pennsylvania, Southeast Ohio and West Virginia. The region has grappled with issues including the opioid crisis, chronic unemployment and the decline of the steel industry, challenges that can take a toll on mental health.

“These are also the areas that tend to be where our (seminary) graduates end up serving,” often as pastors of small rural congregations, Blier said.

The program is designed “to empower rural faith leaders with the knowledge, practices and grounding they need to respond with grace and effectiveness to mental health concerns and to build viable, strong support systems to advance this work,” according to the course description.

The idea is “to remind pastors of their own training around issues of pastoral care and to help them claim what they already know and to distinguish that from mental health services,” Blier said.

Also, faith leaders “need to know how to refer appropriately and know what the landscape of services looks like in their area,” she said. “Rural communities are frequently most underserved by mental health services.”

For more information about “Hope and Healing,” go here.

Learn more about the Presbyterian Mental Health Ministry here.

Darla Carter, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Hope and Healing program

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Michael Moore, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Wayne Moore, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray:

May the tender mercy of Christ cause God’s love-light to shine upon us so we can reflect light to those sitting in darkness and together follow the Spirit’s guidance into the way of peace — for ourselves, our neighbors and the world. Amen.