Mental Health and the Church: Partnership Prompts Fruitful Conversation

 In All Church of God, CHOG, Great Lakes

By Kim Ousley

Two men meet for lunch. They discuss their passion for educating the church on mental illness. They explore ideas about how to help those in their congregations and in the community in the midst of the struggle. These men were Kirk Bookout, retired development director for Children of Promise and Handel Smith, executive director of US and Canada Strategy for Church of God Ministries. Their casual discussion over a simple meal sparked an event for the community designed to educate the church on an issue often swept under the rug, but pervasive and perplexing—the issue of mental health.

In partnership with professionals from local agencies like Aspire, as well as local clergy, and people facing mental health issues within their families, this special event took place at South Meridian Church of God in Anderson, Indiana on November 4, 2023. Panel sessions with clergy and mental health professionals were broken into two sessions—“Mental Health Basics: Information and Mental Health for Youth, Adults, and Families” and “Mental Health and Faith Communities: Bridges and Barriers to Connecting Faith and Mental Health Communities. Bookout shared that he has been an advocate for mental health and Aspire for about twenty years.

“According to Aspire, almost 100 percent of their clients do have some understanding of their own spirituality,” said Bookout.

An article published online by Christianity Today, written by Amy Simpson, speaks of how “every year in the United States, 25 percent of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.” Those afflictions include serious and chronic diseases, like Schizophrenia and Bipolar disorder, as well as more common problems, such as depression and anxiety disorders, and everything in between.

Mental health panel at South Meridian Church of God.

“Most church leaders have encountered mental illness in their churches. When people seek help for mental illness, 25 percent of them go first to the church,” according to the author of the article. “Church leaders don’t know how to help.”

Bookout had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Laura Stull, chair of the psychology department at Anderson University, and learned when she was obtaining her doctorate that she focused on mental health and the church. She was instrumental in sharing information during the panel discussions at the event.

“When I did an internship at a place working with severely mentally ill, I discovered we’re more alike than different; that changed my outlook and perspective,” she said. “I saw that they were treated different by church members.” She also said that one in four are diagnosed with a mental illness, but up to 75 percent may not seek help. The stigma is real, and has hindered many from getting the help they need.

The people responsible for putting this event together are the professionals who shared what their positions entailed, as well as defining mental illness on a basic level included:

  • Katie Wilson, clinical manager, Madison County Home and Community-Based Services at Aspire Indiana;
  • Michael Smith, supervisor, Madison County Adult HCBS at Aspire Indiana;
  • Toneko C. Kayzer, supervisor, Madison County Adult HCBS at Aspire Indiana;
  • Wendy Wills, community engage coordinator at Aspire Indiana;
  • Dr. Steve Wimmer, pastor, South Meridian Church of God;
  • Rev Handel Smith, executive director of US and Canada for Church of God Ministries; and
  • Kirk Bookout, retired director of development, Children of Promise.

Session One featured Katie Wilson, Michael Smith, Val Anderson (youth and family provider with Aspire), and Dr. Jerry Sheward (associate medical director of behavioral health), who shared their specific experiences and knowledge in getting help. Session Two featured Dr. Laura Stull, Dr. Jonathon Grubbs (pastor, Park Place Church of God), and Kirk Bookout, who were qualified to speak to the church and faith communities with specific help and ideas.

Overall, three stigmas exist in society: public, internal and family. People are told to “just pray about it” or told it must be sin causing the behavior, when it is actually a chemical imbalance of the brain. Those who try to help by offering advice usually aren’t helpful. Sadly, the divorce rate among couples with someone in the family with mental illness is at 80 percent.

Dr. Stull mentioned what is called the “no casserole” disease, which means when someone is ill with cancer, people respond with food and help. That’s not the case with those who suffer from mental illness. “But they are valuable and human beings, too. [They are not defined by] their disease.”

Kim Ousley is a freelance writer from Anderson, Indiana.

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