Clergy Often Unprepared for Those with Mental Illness

According to a longitudinal study recently concluded by Johns Hopkins University, pastoral care of the mentally ill is taking up a large amount of ministers', priests', and rabbis' time and energy. While it has long been established that deeply religious individuals more often turn to spiritual leaders for counseling rather than psychiatric professionals, the degree to which the needs of the mentally ill can overburden members of the clergy is often under-appreciated.

The Baltimore Epidemiological Catchment Area Follow-Up Study (Third wave) measured the religiosity of participants by asking a series of questions such as “How important is God in your life?” and compared those results with a participant's preferred source of counseling. Unsurprisingly, as religiosity increased, so did reliance upon spiritual counseling resources over secular psychiatric services.

This result is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, the depths of some parishioners' illnesses are so great that they cannot be adequately addressed by clergy who are often, by necessity, generalists. While a priest or rabbi might be the first logical place to turn for a spiritual person, that clergy might be unaware of the need or availability of more focused specialists. Secondly, for chronic conditions like schizophrenia, serious bipolar disorder, and personality disorders, the long-term needs of a given patient can become so time-consuming that members of the clergy may find themselves spending the majority of their days in pastoral care.

The important take-away from the study, say its authors, is recognition of the need to educate spiritual leaders on other types of psychiatric help available. At the very least, church leaders should be able to perform very basic psychotherapy, be able to assess the need for specialized treatment, and know where mentally ill parishioners can be referred.

Source: Clinical Psychiatry News

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