I Didn’t Know How

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Erin Counihan

I didn’t know how to talk about it.

I was finishing my last semester of seminary and looking for my first call, writing cover letters, updating my sad little website, and horrible pause-filled Skype-interviewing my future pastor heart out. I had worked up a standard set of non-threatening, but honest answers to the big theological issues I was certain to be asked on worship and sacraments and hospitality and marriage and ordination standards. I had most of the conversations covered and rehearsed, but all the while I carried a desperate stress and raging pounding in my heart because I didn’t know how to talk about the one thing that I thought would actually keep me from getting a job.

I am a parent to a kid with mental health needs.

I am a parent to a kid with mental health needs and I had no idea how to share this, how to talk about this, without judgement on my kid, or my own parenting, with kind, hopeful church people. With kind, hopeful church people looking for a pastor.

I didn’t know how to explain what our life is like. I didn’t know how to warn them that we would never be that perfect pastor’s family, not that the perfect pastor’s family really exists anywhere, but I wasn’t sure how to them that we weren’t even going to try to come anywhere close to fitting that image. I didn’t know how to share our history. I didn’t know how to clue them into our struggles. I didn’t know how to explain all the appointments and medications, diagnoses and treatment programs, behavior modifications and safety plans, but most of all the potential outbursts and disruptions. I didn’t know how to tell them about off-meds days, and didn’t want to scare them away from missing all her wonderful days. I didn’t want to say too much, in case they might see her as just her diagnoses, but I didn’t want to say too little and leave them unprepared or worse, to have my kid feel like it was a secret.

I didn’t know how to ask them for understanding and support, for middle of the night phone calls and weekend check-ins. I didn’t know how to tell them how very much I needed to find a church family where my kid could be her full self and be fully loved and celebrated. I didn’t know how to tell them how much I needed a church that wasn’t afraid of dealing with mental illness; a church that wasn’t afraid of dealing with us.

I never really figured out how to say all of that in a non-threatening, but honest way, so instead I blurted it all out, through some tears, during my on-site interview at the perfectly messy and lovely church that God picked out for us. Together, we are learning to be less afraid of that conversation. They’ve welcomed us and have already walked with us through the successes and struggles of our reality. And when much later, months after I was installed, on a bad week, I was brutally honest and told them my biggest fear, that the pastor’s kid would have a mental health emergency at church and it might cost that pastor her job, the now dear and beloved chair of that PNC told me in no uncertain terms: this church can handle that.

I’m still scared to talk about it. I am still worried that people will judge my kid. I am sure they’ll judge my parenting. And if I feel that way as the pastor, I can imagine there are others in our churches who feel that way too.

I don’t think we talk about mental health in church enough. I’m sure we don’t do enough to support individuals and families with mental health needs. I am not sure we know how. I know I don’t know how.

I want to do more. To help my own kid and all of God’s kids. So, I’ve asked a couple of friends a colleagues and perfect strangers to share their thoughts about what churches can be doing, what churches are doing, and what churches might do more of, to be more open to and supportive of those with mental health needs. I look forward to listening to their experiences, to hearing their suggestions, and just engaging in the conversation.

Because I’m trying, but I still don’t know how to talk about it.


Erin Counihan serves as pastor of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO and will be curating the NEXT Blog this month.

6 replies
  1. Laura Monteros
    Laura Monteros says:

    My church is on the major boulevard in what would be a large city anywhere but Southern California. There are hundreds of mentally-ill homeless in our city. Some come to our patio on Sunday a lot come to summer barbecues. We welcome them all. We also have adult members of our church who are mentally ill or intellectually challenged, and they participate in worship and other activities as they are able. We just accept them as people. Occasionally, someone has a meltdown in church, and a member of the congregation will sit next to the person as a calming influence.

    I think where there is a disconnect for many people is that a mentally ill adult is who she is–we know it’s set, we know it can’t really be changed, only accepted. With a child, we are always looking for that magic solution–a new medication, behavioral therapy, intervention–and sometimes, we can find those. But mingled with the hope that someday she will be well is the fear that she never will be completely free. Even in accepting churches, this is a difficult reality to accept.

  2. Maggie Hayward
    Maggie Hayward says:

    I found the parenting experience of a two year mental health crisis with a young adult daughter a harrowing and isolating experience. The prayer support of those I served alongside in my congregation was comforting, helpful, and encouraging. Yet, my pastoral colleagues had a more difficult time understanding the devastating physical, emotional, and spiritual ravages of clinical depression, nor offered the kind of support my daughter and I desperately needed. I am not casting blame for I, too, until I experienced such firsthand, had no idea of the real (and dare I say, “demonic”) life lived from moment to moment.

  3. Susan
    Susan says:

    What you didn’t know is that there are likely members of your congregation or their extended family members who also don’t know how to talk about mental health issues. Many of us experience mental health issues at some point in our lives, a relative with depression, a friend who self-injures (cutting), someone we know who has suicidal ideations or has attempted and maybe even succeeded in suicide. Some of us have family members with diagnoses like bi-polar or mood disorders; generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, hoarding and the list goes on. What you struggle with, is a common problem for anyone who faces the challenges of a loved one with a mental health need–how to talk about it, without judgement. The best way I know how to engage in this conversation is openly and with God’s guidance. God doesn’t judge, and he doesn’t want us to judge either. So we look at the good things that person can do, we focus on that and note that even if there is a bad spell, the good is always there for us.

    The talking gets easier when we have others to share with–I love that you have this as a blog message. I hope it helps others to open up and talk about Mental health needs in their church, community, home, and/or family. Blessings.

  4. Kirk
    Kirk says:

    God has blessed you with a mission – as others have commented, Mental Illness is pretty common, but NOT understood, is feared and has a large stigma. The blessing is you will have the opportunity to show people and maybe do a little to remove the stigma. You will have a positive impact even if you do not realize it. You will end up helping many people with mental illnesses or family members who suffer from mental illness. Many do not realize that mental illness is a brain illness and is as common as heart disease, cancer, kidney disease and others. People do not realize that at any one time, approximately 20% of the population is suffering from some form of mental illness. You probably do know of NAMI. If you haven’t done so, find your local affiliate of NAMI at http://www.NAMI.org. They have some wonderful support, classes for family members and such. This will be a resource for you to help those with ill family members. Prayers to you and your family. Thanks for having the courage to bring this to light!

  5. Josey
    Josey says:

    Thank you for opening the closet to the secret of mental illness that affect even our pastoral families. Yes! we too suffer the shame, stigma and isolation that comes with a diagnoses of mental illness. For us, we suffered in silence, we isolated our family, keeping to ourslves, not sharing our deep deep struggle. Difficult when our child was constantly having melt downs, behavioral difficulties etc. having to take lots of time off to interviene and manage crissis after crissis. Not able to share our deep pain of loss for our child we prayed for and placed in God’s hands the day of his birth and we just could not share our grief and our sorrow for our child. If it were cancer etc we would have been inundated with care, cards, casseroles etc. But no our loved ones with mental illness and their care givers are isolated, not even given a second thought in our congregations, Several times my son was ridiculed by a youth group helpers. Once on a youth trip meds were not given to him, even when specific instructions were given in writing and much information given in confidence which was not kept confidential. So very hard to trust and be open even among those we share faith with. Nami ( National Alliance Mental Illness) has been a good resource for our family. Mental illness is a matter of social justice that starts within our communities of faith.

  6. Marian
    Marian says:

    When my adult son’s depression took a drastic turn for the worse, we had to ask the church Board if he could live with us after hospitalization and losing his job. They did not hesitate at all in supporting us with prayer and concern all the time. We had a really rough summer and I felt guilty for not being able to deal with things at home and give the kind of pastoral care to others I thought I should be doing. I slowly confided to people one at a time and every time I talked about it, I felt better and found more support. One woman finally told me maybe God put me in that church so THEY could take care of ME for a while. I was able to accept that. Things are in a better, though not ideal place with my son, and the love and support from our congregation continues. Also, when I was open, others shared their struggles more openly and we could all become better equipped and educated together.


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