Faith leaders need more training to deal with mental health issues, say professionals
Grant Cooper remembers the conversations his mother has held with herself. He remembers her paranoia and depression. He remembers how the Pentecostal church in Camden, N.J., stepped in when his mother’s mental health deteriorated in the 1970s.
His mother was close to local faith leaders, and the church helped feed him and his four siblings while they lived in foster homes and his mother got professional help. But Mr. Cooper wonders if things would have been different if the clergy were better informed about issues of mental health.
“I wish they were better at identifying some of those signs [of mental illness],” he says. “If they were able to see some of that stuff, they probably could’ve helped and intervened first.”
In a summit organized by the New York Commission of Religious Leaders, faith leaders received the kind of training Mr. Cooper’s family could have benefited from. Mr. Cooper joined around 200 faith leaders and laypeople gathered at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in New York City on Feb. 13 to learn about mental health awareness, suicide prevention and pastoral wellness from mental health researchers and advocates.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik underlined the need for mental health training for clergy, saying the faith community has been silent for too long on the subject. “We would talk openly about different ailments,” he told summit participants. “But when it came to mental health we were somewhat on the silent side.”
Pastors are on the front lines of care, both spiritual and physical, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said during a press conference at the event, and they must be equipped to help both needs. “One of the things churches can do, one of the things communities of faith can do, is create a climate of trust, security, safety, where people really feel they’re at ease to speak from the heart, from the soul,” he said.
Chirlane McCray, first lady of New York City, told the summit that faith leaders play an important role in connecting people to mental health services since individuals may be more willing to talk to a priest than see a psychiatrist. In 2015, Ms. McCray helped launch ThriveNYC, the city’s plan to encourage discussion about mental illness and to close treatment gaps. More than 500 New Yorkers, from 160 faith-based organizations, have been trained in first aid for mental health through the program, she said.
“A faith leader can do so much in helping a person feel comfortable in talking about what’s plaguing them."
“A faith leader can do so much in helping a person feel comfortable in talking about what’s plaguing them, what’s making them feel uncomfortable, and help them get to the right type of care,” Ms. McCray said.
Dr. Jamila Codrington, a clinical supervisor at Astor Services for Children and Families, in Rhinebeck, N.Y., detailed the warning signs of a mental illness in children and adolescents, such as declining performance in school, poor concentration, avoiding friends and feeling hopeless. Low-income and minority communities are at an increased risk because the effects of trauma can be passed from one generation to another.
Poverty, abuse, the death of a loved one and stress over immigration status are all risk factors for adolescent mental health problems, Dr. Codrington said, and children must be cared for differently than adults.
“For many young people, they express their reality, perceptions and experiences through play,” she said. “Compassion and active listening—those two things can be done by anyone.”
Dr. David Ginsberg, clinical professor and vice-chair of the New York University Department of Psychiatry, taught the audience of faith leaders how to administer the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale, which identifies the likelihood of self-harm and the level of intervention urgency. Removing means of self-harm and directly asking individuals about suicidal thoughts are important intervention tactics, he said.
However, the good work of clergy should not come at the cost of personal health, said Dr. Derek Suite, sports psychiatrist and founder of Full Circle Health. The overwhelming nature of caregiving can lead to decreased compassion and burnout, he said.
“We can have life and death before us,” Dr. Suite said. “The risk that you all face, and we all face, as caretakers is that our senses get overloaded.”
Religious life can be isolating, he said, which is why leaders should make sure they have a community of counsel for times of need. Clergy should also make sure they are sleeping enough and eating healthily, too. Observing the sabbath can be one of the most difficult things for clergy to do because of the workload demands of religious life, he added.