Mental and emotional illness is increasingly present in our world today.  Struggles revealed through  homelessness in our cities, psychotic murderers, self-medication everywhere, and the horror of suicide highlighted by the recent deaths of celebrities such as Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and many others, remind us of how desperate our world is for healing and hope.

The countless facets of mental and emotional wellness have an affect on all of us. Recognizing this, Dr. Nii Addy, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, and I co-hosted a town hall type conversation several months ago, called, God, Mental Health, and Wellness in New York City

Dr. Nii leads a research lab at Yale’s campus, with a focus on the neurobiology of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. My focus as a pastor, has been to help individuals find healing and enjoy the abundant life promised to us by our Lord in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The stats seem ominous. In the United States, 1 in 5 people suffers from some form of mental illness. 1 in 4 women suffers from emotional, physical and mental abuse. Throughout the world, substance abuse and depression seem ubiquitous.

In light of this, it was no surprise that our Town Hall Conversation tapped a raw nerve. The response was overwhelming in attendance and follow-up conversations.

Over 1,200 eager individuals registered to attend, drawn by the subject matter and our distinguished panelists: Myra Mathis, MD, a fourth-year resident in the Yale Department of Psychiatry; Vicky Sigworth, Vice President, National Alliance on Mental Illness – Elm City; Doug Middleton, New York Jets safety and founder of the Dream The Impossible initiative; and Lecrae, Grammy Award-winning artist and New York Times best-selling author.

Our goals in hosting this Town Hall Conversation were fourfold:

1.    To decrease the stigma associated with mental health.

2.    To help individuals think about mental health in the context of the whole person.

3.    To connect individuals with appropriate resources.

4.    To talk about the role of faith and God in approaching mental health and wellness.

In a day where it’s popular to blame, accuse and denigrate the Church, we hosted a conversation where the Church was shining bright in loving others. Our event made a clear and bold presentation for the Gospel. This came from several well-educated experts who shared the heart of God for healing.

During a live interview with Bold TV, the host asked Dr. Nii and me how faith is involved with wellness. Before we could respond, she explained her own growing up years, saying, “I would share struggles, receive prayer and if I didn’t get better, was told to drop it and move on.”  Unfortunately, this has been a recurring sentiment from many individuals before, during, and after the Town Hall Conversation.

As pastors and leaders in the faith community, we can do better. I believe often our desire to help is sincere, but the understanding and training have been so often missed or misguided. Depression and mental illness are most often not healed through a quick prayer. A more integrated approach is desperately needed. 

Obviously, prayer is vital and always needed. Yet, James 2:14 says, “Faith without works, is dead.” We cannot leave those struggling and ill with a feeling of helplessness by simply telling them to, “Have faith.” As Dr. Nii said during the Town Hall Conversation, “When you break your arm you don’t just say a prayer, you go to the Emergency Room. Mental illness is often like a broken arm. But too often, people aren’t directed to professional mental health services.”

Affirmed from attendee feedback, it appears we took a positive step forward in achieving our long-term goals.  After the event ended, we planned for attendees to meet our special speakers. It was touching to see so many remain until the venue shut down.

That night we met many who have experienced or are currently experiencing abuse, PTSD, depression, and extraordinary losses. A young lady informed me that she had lost five family members to suicide. The pain was real, and at times horrific for so many of our attendees.

No doubt our well-known panelists attracted a large crowd. However, I cannot argue with the simple fact that the conversation around God, Mental Health and Wellness struck a deep, often painful chord.

Several of the responses listed below express what I believe is a universal cry for more attention, time and resources around these topics:

1. Individuals mentioned they have been waiting for this conversation. One person said they have been waiting 20 years.

2. Many gained clarity on the intersection of mental health and faith.

3. Others connected with several local mental health resource and advocacies.

4. Local resource groups received helpful feedback from attendees. In some cases, based on this feedback, they made adjustments to their services.

5. Individuals who were in the midst of deep mental health challenges shared their experience with others feeling less stigma and judgment.

6. One individual, who was moved to tears during the Town Hall Conversation, was prayed for by a stranger sitting nearby. They connected with local resources for additional help and support.

7. People built new connections with other attendees, local churches, and faith communities.

To my surprise, people are still talking about this transparent conversation and our approach to healing. Our Every Nation New York City team of professionals, pastors and practitioners are all committed to an integrated approach between faith and science (medicine, therapy, diet, etc.) to meet the needs of our city, and this event was like a fresh injection of focus and passion toward this end.

Christians who are willing to engage in the discussion, view healing as a process and absorb the pain of others will find themselves frequently used by God in addressing mental health needs. Additionally, I frequently advise finding Christian counselors and therapists who embrace the process of healing that often comes through time, prayer, Scripture and faith communities. All of this is congruent with the New Testament and the very word for healing: therapueo, which implies a process of healing and not just the miracle of healing.

At the foundation of all conversations is a belief that God wants people well and sometimes requires an openness to methods we are uncomfortable with or find unfamiliar. I’m reminded of king Namaan who was told to dip in the river seven times before he could be healed. It was not what a king wanted to hear but he did it and received his miracle.

Similar to Namaan, every time I have personally gone to counseling and therapy I have hated it and often wanted to “jump ship” before it even began. Although I hated the process, I have loved the results. In my journey there have been moments when I was healed by God with no assistance and other times when professional help from others was my only long-term path to recovery and wholeness.

The root of our faith for this type of healing is that God wants His children healthy and whole, but it may be a process. I Thessalonians 5:23 says, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I’m thankful to serve and lead a responsive church of parishioners who said yes to hosting an event that ministered to and ignited hope for many. In the process, the event helped those inside and outside of our congregation as well, bringing education and awareness at a whole new level. 

My sincere hope is that the Church at large will be increasingly willing to become healing ears, healing hands and healing hearts in the cities we know and love.