Reducing the stigma around mental health requires a multifaceted approach in which individuals, communities, and society at large all have a role to play. But for many people who are seeking help for a mental health or substance use problem, their first point of contact isn’t a doctor or a therapist.
It’s Their Faith Leaders – People Like Me
I don’t have a degree in medicine or counseling, and there are no letters following my name. As a rabbi, though I’ve been involved in the mental health space for quite a long time – not in spite but perhaps because of my lack of letters. I’ve seen firsthand how clergy can play a critical role in reducing mental health stigma, using our unique positions within faith communities to support those who are struggling and to promote awareness and influence the attitudes and behaviors of others.
But We Can Only Do It if We Know How
I love my Jewish community and our tradition (I’m a rabbi – of course I do!), and I know what joy it brings to people’s lives. Yet the social dynamics within tight-knit religious communities can sometimes be double-edged. On one hand, they provide a sense of belonging, purpose, and communal resources; on the other, their insular nature can foster guilt and shame in members who are unable to conform to group expectations. The result is often a bevy of misconceptions about mental health, including the incorrect view that mental illness and even neurodiversity are the result of spiritual weakness or a lack of faith, rather than what they really are – science.
In the past, many faith leaders were raised in a generation that largely kept mum about mental health; some even learned to “pray away” the symptoms of mental illness rather than seeking professional guidance. To their credit, many religious communities and individuals, including clergy, have taken great strides away from these dangerously misguided notions of mental health. But as long as any trace of such beliefs persists, more work remains to be done.
In some religious communities today, for example, the revelation of past or present mental health challenges can impact potential marriage prospects. And sometimes, seeking mental health treatment is seen as crossing a social boundary, even requiring the permission of faith leaders. These outdated cultural mores are deeply damaging to faith communities on the whole – and especially to individuals who are struggling in silence with their mental health.
Understandably, such beliefs perpetuate a stigma that can lead individuals to view their mental health as a source of shame to be hidden away and ignored. And when people conceal their conditions, they’re unlikely to seek therapies that could help. The result is silent suffering within our communities, left unaddressed, untreated, and unrelenting.
My family has lived experience with the fear of stigma. When my son was first diagnosed with autism, my immediate reaction was denial and defensiveness, born not of shame but of fear of what his diagnosis might mean for his future. I was afraid of how stigma would follow him throughout his life – yet I kept these fears and the pain they caused me to myself. As a rabbi, I felt obligated to maintain the façade that I was okay. I felt compelled to put on my game face and solve everybody else’s problems; I couldn’t burden them with mine. I wondered how my community could trust me with their issues if they knew I had my own.
Only years later can I see the way that stigma kept me silent and prevented me from seeking the support that my family and I needed.
What will it take for our faith communities to become a part of the solution? Experience has taught me when clergy speak openly, seek deeper understanding and engage in advocacy, our communities respond positively.
As a veteran community and campus rabbi, hospital chaplain, and family peer advocate, I have real-world experience in a variety of medical system settings. Through my campus ministry work, I’ve served as a go-between of sorts between students and the health and counseling department. And as the father of a child on the autism spectrum who has high-support needs, I also founded the Jewish Autism Network, a grassroots-led network of self-advocates, parents and caregivers. For me, advocacy, like religion, is a calling, and I am deeply committed to shining light on the complex, intersectional needs of the dual-diagnosed neurodivergent population.
As such, I’ve gleaned a powerful patchwork of evidence-based mental health literacy that has helped me provide much-needed pastoral care and counseling to countless individuals. In this domain, though, I find that am still in the minority.
Despite the fact that faith leaders are frequently consulted for help with mental health issues, many clergy remain unequipped to handle such challenges. Conversely, many professional mental health services are equally inept at working with faith communities in ways that are authentic and helpful.
When professional mental health services and faith communities work together, we can broaden our impact and strengthen support systems for people with mental health issues, ensuring that individuals have access to the full range of mental health resources. So, what do we need to do to make this happen?
- Forge partnerships between faith-based communities and professional mental health services
Faith-based organizations (and the clergy who lead them) are often a major part of individuals’ natural support networks. But when our religious institutions don’t coordinate with and learn from professional mental health services, the result is inadequate professional care for the community members who need it. The reverse is true, as well: When ethnic and religious minority groups are active partners in mental health spaces, their communities’ engagement, experiences, and outcomes generally improve.
For example, a 2021 study found that when refugee and immigrant communities were engaged as partners in mental health services, the result was an increase in access to care, quality of care, and patient satisfaction, along with improved cultural responsiveness and an overall reduction in stigma (Derr, 2016).
The same held true for a systematic review that found that involving African American churches in the delivery of mental health services led to increased engagement, reduced stigma, and improved mental health outcomes for participants. Partnering with churches was shown to help address cultural barriers to accessing mental health care (Hays & Aranda, 2016).
It’s clear that we need more formal efforts to train clergy in evidence-based mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) interventions. This faith-based initiative uses members to disseminate health messages.
- Engage mental health providers in real, nuanced education about cultural differences.
Community engagement is critical, but too often, mental health professionals’ existing community engagement practices assume religious communities to be homogenous entities. That’s far from the reality, and it’s not helpful to the overall goals of the cause. In fact, it’s sometimes harmful and reinforcing to religious individuals that their providers can’t understand what they’re going through.
My Hasidic community, for example, may dress in black and white, but its adherents are anything but – to say nothing of the many differences between Jewish communities. Each faction of Judaism, while united under the same overarching umbrella of “Jewish,” has its own culture, and values, oftentimes so distinct and unique that what resonates with one may confuse or even alienate another.
In other words, shared otherness does not equal homogeneity. Culture, so often reduced to tangible and obvious differences like music, food, and clothing, is complex and nuanced. Yet the current model for cultural competency is typically, at best, one in which providers watch a simple, straightforward training video (sometimes at double speed) about communities that are “other.” In doing so, they cross off an item on a training list that, once completed, frees them of the responsibility to grow in their understanding of specific, multifaceted cultural differences – to the detriment of those communities.
Only by moving from cultural competency to cultural humility can we change the dialogue and ultimately the dynamic of community engagement. Recruiting mental health workers from specific communities is also a good start, as they have an innate understanding that cannot be easily learned. This intrinsic knowledge, and the empathy that accompanies it, can make their clients feel more fully understood. (That said, variety and choice are essential. Some patients may prefer to avoid waiting room encounters with others in the community or name recognition in billing services.)
Organizations like Families Together in New York State, where I work, also play a crucial role in contributing to this paradigm shift. They endeavor to reframe conversations around mental health and community engagement by acting as a resource for professionals and policymakers, training peer advocates and striving to establish a unified voice for youth in need.
- Encourage clergy to speak openly about mental health in their communities.
Faith leaders can serve as strong role models by prioritizing their own mental health and wellbeing and sharing those experiences with their communities. When clergy speak with authenticity and vulnerability, our communities listen – and often, they respond in kind.
One such trailblazer is Pastor Michael Walrond Jr. from First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, who frequently discusses his mental health journey in his sermons. Pastor Walrond has spoken extensively about the negative stigma of seeking therapy within his church community. In doing so, he and others like him inspired me to discuss my own experience with mental health and neurodivergence, including parenting an autistic child and being diagnosed with ADHD at age 45.
When clergy sermonize about mental health and acknowledge the prevalence of mental health issues, they help to debunk misconceptions, challenge stereotypes, and normalize the idea of seeking care. This individual openness from respected community leaders helps reduce the shame and stigma that often prevents others from getting help. Plus, sermons about mental health issues present the opportunity to share information about available resources to those who need them but may not have previously felt comfortable seeking support.
Faith leaders have the power (and, I would argue, the responsibility) to take intentional steps to help reduce the shame and stigma that still plagues conversations about mental health. As first responders to our congregants’ spiritual and emotional needs, we can play a vital role in perpetuating the belief that asking for help isn’t a sign of strength but a sign of weakness – and the first step toward healing.
But collaboration is critical. Faith leaders who are educated and open about mental health are better equipped to provide pastoral care to community members in need. And when professional mental health services endeavor to truly learn about and partner with faith communities, they increase the likelihood that people of faith will feel heard, supported, and understood in their pursuit of treatment.
By working in tandem, professional mental health services and faith communities can create an environment that encourages open and honest conversations about mental health – an environment that ultimately dispels myths, misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental health once and for all.
Rabbi Weinstein is a bestselling author who was named “New York’s Hippest Rabbi” by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute and is the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) coordinator for Families Together in New York State. He resides in Brooklyn.
Derr, A. S. (2016). Mental Health Service Use Among Immigrants in the United States: A Systematic Review. Psychiatric Services, 67(3), 265–274. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ps.201500004
Hays, K., & Aranda, M. P. (2016). Faith-Based Mental Health Interventions with African Americans. Research on Social Work Practice, 26(7), 777–789. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049731515569356