Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Though written thousands of years ago, these words hum a familiar tune. Many people have not experienced the physical exile the psalmist faced, but millions do know the soul-weary feeling of crying out to God. In fact, over the past few years, record numbers of people have begun to identify in new ways with the desperation expressed in this verse.
“Americans have been doing their best to persevere over these past two tumultuous years,” says Arthur Evans Jr., chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association (APA), reflecting on the 2022 Stress in America Poll. “But these data suggest that we’re now reaching unprecedented levels of stress that will challenge our ability to cope.”
Nearly three-quarters of Americans say that they are overwhelmed by the number of problems facing the world today. Even more state that they feel as though the past two years have been a constant stream of crises.
As people experience greater stress and anxiety, many are looking for help in navigating their mental health challenges. Often, they turn to the church—a weighty reality that has contributed to many pastors struggling with burnout, anxiety, or depression as they attempt to walk their congregants through the pandemic and beyond.
With increasing mental health challenges, pastors must address the needs of their people–and recognize they cannot be the only ones doing so. The work to be done is so vast, and the available resources and margin of pastors are so small. Perhaps what’s needed is a holistic approach to mental health, one that doesn’t depend on pastors alone. This kind of full-scale change starts with recognizing that pastors are not on their own. They are not the bedrock. And they need a team.
Church leaders need a solution that relies on the combined strength and gifts of others. The Sanctuary Course, an eight-week guided study from Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries (Sanctuary), encourages an approach to mental health awareness and healing that relieves pastors of holding every responsibility for spiritual care and companionship, instead equipping community members and small groups to engage in fruitful, congregant-led discussion groups. Completely free of charge, the course operates as a key to unlocking communal healing and support.
Silence around issues of mental health increases stigma, limits capacity for personal relationships, and keeps people from learning about the resources and assistance available to them. Conversely, when communities are safe spaces for sharing about mental health conditions, individuals always benefit.
“I’ve never had a place to talk about these things,” said one participant of The Sanctuary Course whose father and brother live with severe mental illness. Within his small group, however, he felt safe discussing the complex, difficult realities of mental illness.
A staggering 92 percent of survey respondents said that The Sanctuary Course opened up successful dialogue between participants on a variety of mental health topics. Many shared that they felt better able to integrate mental health into their faith journey and the life of their church community after taking the course. In addition, 35 percent of respondents said that they felt better equipped to identify stigma in society, and 23 percent felt better able to identify it in themselves.
And the experience of these participants is not unique. Researchers at Indiana University found that college students who participated in fun, peer-directed activities that addressed mental illness in open and honest ways were far less likely to stigmatize people with mental health conditions. The researchers noted that a “by students, for students” approach seemed integral to the success of the activities. While experts and advisors were important when it came to equipping the student leaders, the peer-led dynamic cultivated vulnerability, openness, and growth. And this model has been proven effective far beyond the grounds of any college campus.
Just as Indiana University students experienced growth and fellowship in their peer-directed environment, so too have many churches as they equip congregants to lead small groups to dialogue about mental health. Institutions need only to open their doors and facilitate.
Pastors, you do not need to shoulder the entire burden of putting a new program in place. Simply providing a room, a circle of chairs, and resources for learning and discussion communicates that mental health is a priority in your congregation. And encouraging small groups to take the lead creates more space for valuable communal support.
In The Sanctuary Course small groups, participants can learn about mental health and illnesses, recovery, companionship, and self-care from psychological, social, and theological perspectives. By watching films that feature fellow Christians sharing their own experiences of mental health challenges, group members build mutual understanding, co-creating an atmosphere that is characterized by insightful content and rich discussion.
Scripture offers insight into why this simple approach seems to be so successful. Proverbs tells us that iron sharpens iron, and sharing our struggles is a way to help others (27:17). When people are stressed, anxious, or depressed, they want to be heard. They want to know that they are not alone, not broken beyond repair. They want to be shown that stigma has not rendered them outcasts. Instead, in the house of God, they are recognized as beloved image-bearers with valuable insights, experiences, and gifts to offer their communities. That is what peer-led groups can provide.
A Way Forward
Sanctuary designed The Sanctuary Course to communicate this message—that we can all learn from and encourage each other during life’s toughest times.
Over eight weeks, participants will read and watch a curriculum designed to promote education, discussion, reflection, and prayer. The content is accessible for believers at any stage of their faith, as it explores topics like understanding mental health, challenging stigmas, practicing self-care, and finding community.
Research confirms that volunteers and small group leaders are grateful for resources that cultivate communities of care in this crucial moment. That’s why Sanctuary has developed an easy-to-use resource for the adults in your congregation. Get started for free right here.