Editorial: Equip seminary grads to serve mentally ill

PastorsCartoonA Baylor research study recently found that seminaries do little to equip pastors to recognize psychological distress among their congregants and when to refer those members to a doctor.

Because of this, many people with mental illnesses continue to suffer while receiving advice from pastors who tell them to “pray harder” or to “confess sin,” according to the study.

Seminaries should incorporate required classes into their programs that allow future pastors to learn how to recognize a possible mental illness and how and when to refer those people to specialists.

Nearly half of all Americans will meet the diagnosis criteria for mental illness in their lifetime. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults, which is about 61.5 million Americans, will experience mental illness in a given year.

With numbers like this, and with Christianity being the majority religion in the U.S., pastors are going to encounter members of their congregation who suffer from a mental illness.

Pastors often minister beyond their congregation to people in their community –  which means they might interact with people with mental illnesses. These people include the homeless or people in situations of poverty. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters have serious mental illness.

In his article “Should Pastors Be Trained in Mental Health Care-giving?,” Dr. Roger E. Olson, a professor at Truett, said inaccurately-trained pastors should not offer counsel to mentally ill people. He contends pastors should be able to recognize potential mental illnesses but should not go on to diagnose the illness unless they are specially trained.

There are some seminaries, such as the Ashland Theological Seminary, that offer specific degree programs for clinical mental health counseling. However, even in seminaries that offer this degree, there are not many that require their students in other degrees to take courses on mental health.

Some people might argue that it is a waste of time for all people attending seminary to receive training in mental illness. While not every person who attends seminary is going to become a pastor of a congregation, every seminary graduate will interact with other people.  These classes could only help prepare them.

Not every seminary student wants or should be required to be able to diagnose a mental illness. Instead, they should be able to recognize possible signs of a mental illness and know when to recommend a professional who has been trained to diagnose and treat a mental illness. If students who are not professionals in diagnosing mental illness were to start doing just that, members of their congregation would be hurt, rather than helped, by this training.

Dr. Dennis Tucket, Jr., interim dean of George W. Truett Theological Seminary, told the Lariat one goal is to help graduates determine when they need to refer individuals to a professional.

“We surely don’t expect our pastors to walk out of here knowing how to do everything,” Tucker said. “We don’t want to give them a false sense of security by sending them through one class on mental health and saying, ‘OK, you’re ready.’”

Truett does not offer a class specifically focused on the mentally ill, but it does offer courses that addresses pastoral conflicts.

“Students at Truett are taught best practices on referring people with needs, including mental health needs, to specialists trained in that area”, Tucker said. He said one class on mentally health needs would not be helpful.

If one class would not help seminary grads recognize mental illness and suggest professional help, perhaps this is a topic that needs to be spread through the seminary student’s education, instead of limited to one course or as only a portion of a class. Seminaries need to be intentional when teaching students about mental illness, instead of hoping that seminary students pick up a few pointers along the way.

In the past, mental illness has been confused with sinful struggles. When pastors advise people to pray for forgiveness when a mental illness is the underlying cause of their struggle, then these people may not get better.

Future pastors must be able to tell the difference between spiritual struggles and a potential mental health need.

Nearly a quarter of the population in America will deal with a mental illness. Many of these people will turn to pastors. Pastors will only perpetuate the problem if seminaries do not step up to train students on mental health needs.