Task force to provide resources and training to help Episcopalians respond to mental health challenges

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jul 17, 2023

Statistics about mental illness in the United States in 2021 show a country facing significant mental health challenges. Image: National Institute of Mental Health

[Episcopal News Service] An Episcopal Church task force is working to provide resources to help church members and clergy better understand and assist people who are coping with various forms of mental or emotional distress, at a time when 90% of Americans believe the country is in a mental health crisis made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statistics in a report from the National Institute of Mental Health help paint the picture of a nation filled with people who are struggling:

  • In 2021, there were an estimated 57.8 million adults in the United States with some form of mental illness, described as a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder. This represents 22.8% of all U.S. adults.
  • The percentage of young adults, ages 18-25, with any mental illness who received mental health services (44.6%) was lower than for ages 26-49 (48.1%) and those 50 and older (47.4%).
  • When mental illness becomes serious – with functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities – it affected 14.1 million adults, representing 5.5% of all U.S. adults.
  • The prevalence of a serious mental illness was highest among American Indian/Alaskan Native adults (9.3%), followed by adults reporting two or more races (8.2%).

The Task Force on Individuals with Mental Illness was created in 2018 and reauthorized by General Convention in 2022 with a mandate to develop and provide “resources, trainings and curricula in pastoral and ministerial mental health care” and to “develop and share resources for The Episcopal Church.”

The group’s chair, the Rev. David Gortner, told Episcopal News Service that helping church members better understand mental health challenges starts with destigmatizing mental illness, as well as helping support people with mental health issues and their families so they remain part of the larger community. “We want to frame this as someone being part of the beloved community of God,” Gortner said.

That work has special significance for task force member Luis Collazo, a hospital administrator in Puerto Rico, who told ENS by email that in many Latin American societies “mental illness is surrounded by misconception and discrimination.” The work of the task force can help foster “open and compassionate conversations about mental health” and dispel harmful stereotypes by promoting “a more inclusive understanding of mental well-being,” he said.

Gortner said the task force has placed a big emphasis on mental health first aid because it can help people across the church understand how to recognize and assist people with a mental health challenge, much as first-aid training helps people respond to physical injuries “to keep them alive until the EMT gets there.”

Mental health first aid, he said, gives those who are trained the ability “to come alongside people who are in distress,” whether it’s a long-term chronic illness or an acute situation. “You’re not a counselor, you’re not a mental health specialist, but you are someone who recognizes signs and symptoms and who knows how to interact in ways that can be helpful,” he said.

Gortner, who has degrees in psychology as well as nearly two decades of experience serving in Episcopal parishes and seminaries, said the task force has been working to get information and skills around mental health into the hands of Episcopalians in three ways:

  • Providing mental health first aid instructors in all nine provinces of The Episcopal Church to train people in their dioceses.
  • Creating one-page handouts describing mental health topics, including mental illness, depression, anxiety disorders, trauma, schizophrenia and related thought disorders, and bipolar disorder for download and easy distribution.
  • Developing a curriculum for clergy and seminarians that focuses on mental health, mental illness and ministry.

Collazo echoed the need, especially because access to quality mental health often is limited in places across the Caribbean, and in Central and South America. In those places, he said, training like mental health first aid and the work of The Episcopal Church can help advocate for policies that prioritize mental health care and even identify gaps in existing mental health services. It also can equip congregations and clergy “with the knowledge and skills needed to provide empathetic and informed support to individuals with mental illness.”

Plans to train people across the church who will in turn become instructors in dioceses and parishes hit a budgetary snag last year, Gortner said. While the task force’s work and a budget were approved by General Convention, no specific allocation for this task force was made and thus “evaporated” into general funding for interim bodies, he said. When the task force met in Cleveland in March of this year, Gortner said $35,000 was able to be reallocated to the task force, which will cover most of the cost of training mental health first aid instructors, which he expects to take place this fall.

Under current plans, instructors won’t charge to offer the training for three years, asking only that their expenses be covered. The classes offered locally, Gortner noted, could extend beyond the church to members from the wider community.

The handouts will be geared to people with little knowledge about mental illness and provided in language that’s easy to understand. In each one-page, double-sided handout, Gortner said, task force members had to home in on what’s most important to say about each topic so the information would be helpful to a wide range of people – clergy, church members, caregivers and those suffering from mental illness themselves.

The task force also is working on a curriculum for clergy and seminarians that will expand on what mental health first aid provides and include elements of pastoral and spiritual care. One of the purposes of this training, he said, will be to help equip clergy so they can be “a better resource and connector for people who are experiencing mental health challenges.”

Beyond that, clergy also need specific knowledge in how they can help families and caregivers of those with mental illness, as well as the congregations of which they are members. “There’s education, modeling and training to do within congregations on how to make it a hospitable place,” Gortner said, “how to be good a companion for people who are experiencing mental health challenges, and also how to safeguard a congregation,” since some people with certain types of mental illness might seek to harm themselves or others.

He envisions this training to be offered in a series of modules, much like the Safe Church training used in The Episcopal Church. And like that training, he’d like to see this new curriculum be required for everyone seeking ordination or who already is ordained, given the need.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.