How spiritual leaders may help those struggling with behavioral health

About 1 in 5 Americans have experienced a behavioral health issue in their lifetime. Often, when someone is struggling and looking for help, they’re not reaching out to a doctor or psychiatrist, but a spiritual leader, such as a minister, rabbi or imam. These leaders can provide a first step in the process of care — not only through guidance, but also potential referrals to mental health care professionals. According to the American Psychological Association, spiritual leaders can act like “first responders” to mental health crises. However, they don’t always have the tools needed to close the gaps in care.

At the Finally Me conference in northern Virginia this fall, co-sponsored by UnitedHealthcare, women of faith gathered to share their stories and real-life experiences regarding mental well-being.  They also focused on ways to help reduce the stigma surrounding behavioral health.

Led by Dr. Jasmin “Jazz” Sculark, the space became an opportunity to look at how spiritual leaders may make positive contributions to one’s overall sense of wellness, while also providing a safe space for conversations about behavioral health.

Briana Penny, a UnitedHealthcare regional director who spoke at the conference, noted the importance of looking at mental and physical health holistically, emphasizing this approach as “one of the catalysts to break down barriers.”

Faith communities can act as expanded “safety nets” for people needing help with behavioral health. has recommendations for reducing stigma and letting people know they’re not alone. This can be true whether it’s from a spiritual leader or advisor, or someone in a faith community:

  • Talk openly about your own mental health. Sometimes hearing about another person’s struggles can open up a conversation.
  • Language matters. Try not to judge another person’s struggles. For example, instead of saying, “What’s wrong?” try “What happened?”
  • Get involved. Find opportunities to help; for example, by offering a local space for behavioral health or substance abuse meetings, or by inviting behavioral health experts to speak to your group.

For someone struggling with their mental health, a welcoming environment is crucial for good outcomes in the future. If a spiritual leader — who has built-in trust with someone seeking help — perpetuates the stigma around behavioral health, that person may be less likely to seek help from other sources, perhaps even withdrawing from assistance altogether.

No matter where people are in their journey, community and support from others is essential. A sense of belonging and a spiritual guide may also be helpful for individuals struggling with behavioral health, as it pertains to their overall sense of wellness. It may provide a sense of shared community, purpose and hope, as well as a mission to help others.

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