Bridging the Gap: Mental Health First Aid Training Among People of Faith
Post-COVID, and in a world that moves at a relentless pace, mental health has become a critical concern affecting individuals from all walks of life. People of faith, in particular, continually find ourselves navigating in balance between mental health and spiritual well-being. Per the CDC, more than 1 in 5 US adults live with a mental illness; over 1 in 5 youth (ages 13-18) either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness; about 1 in 25 U.S. adults lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.*i A National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) study showed that 64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse.*ii Indeed, a quick perusal of news and a few journals reveals disturbing similarities in the impacts of mental health stigma on airline pilots circa 2016 and 2023.*iii, iv
Historically, however, mental health concerns are met with silence or discomfort in religious settings, often a result of shame, lack of clinical understanding, and/or fear of judgment. Conversely, however, people of faith – who consistently fill native roles in comfort, counsel and caregiving – occupy a unique and powerful niche for promoting a more nuanced understanding of factors contributing to persons’ well-being.
Mental Health First Aid offers a strong supporting platform: “Just as CPR helps one assist an individual having a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) teaches caring individuals how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental health and substance use-related crises among adults, youth, and special populations.” (https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org)
Central tenets of our faith tradition, and of many others, include compassion, empathy, and caring for one another. MHFA can help bridge perceptual gaps between spiritual and mental health, empower individuals to engage in open and compassionate conversations, and foster an environment where seeking help is seen as a strength rather than a weakness.
The training provides practical tools to translate our core values into action. We not only learn to recognize the signs of a mental health crisis but to intervene effectively, offer initial support, connect those in need with appropriate resources, and take care of ourselves in the process. Integrating mental health discussions into our teachings and practices contributes to the normalization of seeking help for mental health challenges; we equip families and communities to address mental health concerns before they escalate.
Mental Health First Aid training also emerges as a crucial tool for churches who create and sustain support networks for our members and surrounds; our partnerships contribute to a broader societal shift towards a more compassionate and inclusive approach to mental health at large.
My MHFA “evangelism” arises from the fact that I am a person with lived experience, who straddles multiple disproportionally impacted populations: person of color, female, LGBTQ+, elder, and so on. I am, in a small way, “a women of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”
Professionally, as a person of faith and pastor, I see at least six domains in which MHFA can directly assist the church: challenging and breaking stigma; aligning our practical work with our spiritual and social values; exploring the interconnectedness of mind, spirit, and body; skilled, do-no-harm crisis intervention and support; promoting a culture of well-being; and strengthening community support networks.
The last domain is, in fact, a form of self-care. Strong, cooperative referral networks of spiritual with therapeutic providers allow us to avoid savior syndrome and observe appropriate boundaries (the Mental Health Center of San Diego shared a pointed but informative article online, “What is a Savior Complex?,” https://mhcsandiego.com/savior-complex/). We can better stave off disillusionment and burn-out while expanding the modes of support available to our families, parishioners and communities. The “warm handoff” can be a win-win. I encourage you to experience this transformative training through a faith lens, and run headlong into the creativity it inspires.
Rev. Dr. Toni Dunbar is an Associate Pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland, California. She is also a Certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor, and the principal of Imara Heritage LLC, a training, grant writing and consulting entity with deep nonprofit roots. Toni’s primary co-leader for MHFA is Tracey L.R. Abernathy, Toni’s mentor in youth services. For years Ms. Abernathy’s motto has been “To save a youth, you must engage a youth,” and she has done so on behalf of myriad community, government, and faith-based organizations.
i CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm
ii NAMI: https://namica.org/blog/handling-stress-during-the-holiday-season/
iii Pilots 2016: https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-016-0200-6
iv Pilots 2023: https://abc7chicago.com/alaska-airlines-incident-pilots-mental-health-care/13989267/
*with apologies to Rev. Dr. Dunbar, superscript did not work for footnote references so the asterisk was included.