NASHVILLE (BP)—Child advocate and mental health consultant Kelly Rosati has spent her fair share of time in psychiatric hospitals—not for herself, but visiting her kids.
She and her husband adopted all four of their children out of foster care. Three suffer on some level from mental illness—depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
During a parenting conference sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, she and other experts discussed how the church should approach ministry to teens and children who suffer from mental illness, as well as how to serve their families.
Rosati, Focus on the Family’s vice president of advocacy for children, wants to debunk the notion mental health is a spiritual issue—particularly for others, like her, who struggle to parent kids who have been diagnosed with mental illness.
“It’s harmful for the church to tell people who suffer from mental illness and their families to pray harder,” Rosati said. “Don’t tell someone whose brain isn’t working to pray a little harder. Don’t confuse parenting with getting professional help.”
Rosati notes 20 percent of teens will experience depression before adulthood—and those teens are 12 times more likely to die by suicide.
Ever since 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz—a teen diagnosed with depression—opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, the national conversation has turned toward several factors that may have contributed to the tragedy.
The shooting has prompted chatter in Christian social media circles about gun control and multi-system failures. But there also has been focused conversation around mental health.
Once Cruz turned 18, he reportedly refused mental health services offered to him by the school district. Reports suggest behavioral health professionals made the wrong call when they failed to hospitalize him following a 2016 examination.
Furthermore, some sources report his mother, who died of pneumonia in November 2017, had called the police on several occasions when his behavior escalated as an attempt to scare him into compliance.
Would church attendance help?
If Cruz had been a churchgoer, some ask whether he might have received pastoral or congregational care.
A 2014 study conducted by LifeWay Research and sponsored by Focus on the Family showed two-thirds (66 percent) of the 1,000 pastors surveyed do not address mental health issues from the pulpit.
It also found more than a quarter (27 percent) of churches don’t have a plan in place to minister to individuals and families affected by mental illness. And less than a quarter (21 percent) of family members are aware such a ministry exists within their church.
In another study a year prior, LifeWay Research found a third of Americans and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist or born-again Christians believe spiritual activities like prayer and Bible study can overcome serious mental illness.
‘Give them the help they need’
While prayer and church involvement are important for any struggle—corporate or individual—more is needed to treat depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue, Rosati said.
She urges families to seek church-led spiritual guidance and prayer on behalf of their loved one who suffers from mental illness. But she also cautions them not to ignore the clinical side of treatment.
“What I want to say to parents and families is, ‘Please keep in mind that neurochemical issues are not spiritual issues,’” she said.
“When our kids are broken and don’t work the way they should, our duty as parents is to advocate for them and give them the help they need.”