‘A space for people to be cared about’

A group of students participates in the Sanctuary Course, which prepares parish volunteers to offer companionship and support for people struggling with mental health problems. Photo: Leslie Roberts
Published May 1, 2024

Some say churches can bolster a mental health care system under strain

Isolation made mourning particularly difficult when Mary (not her real name), a retired nurse in her 70s, lost a lifelong friend during the pandemic. The last time Mary had spoken to her they had gone out for a rare outing among the plastic dividers of a local breakfast spot, and on the way out, her friend mentioned her heart stents and asked if it was usual to have any pain from them.

“That was the last conversation I had with her,” says Mary.

After her friend died, one of the ways Mary dealt with her grief was by rejoining the church community the two had shared. Mary had fallen out of touch with the church some time before the pandemic, but now found that going there and singing with the congregation was a release valve—as it had been earlier in her life when she had supported her husband through a serious, long-term bout of depression.

Many people suffered like Mary during the especially isolating early period of the pandemic. And, according to some mental-health professionals, many could also benefit from the community, support, and sometimes even counselling resources churches can provide. With the public system struggling to affordably meet the nation’s needs for mental health care services, they say, faith organizations may be able to help ease the burden.

Recent research has suggested the pandemic took a heavy toll on Canadians’ mental health. In one study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, about 37 per cent of Canadians reported their mental health was worse during the lockdowns beginning in 2020 than it had been before. A survey by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction found increased depression symptoms in about half of people with existing substance use disorders. It found increased alcohol consumption in about one-third of all respondents who drink and about half of people who reported already having a substance use problem.

The existing care system, moreover, was already struggling to meet rising demand before lockdowns began. The Canadian Mental Health Alliance, the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health and other mental health organizations were reporting more demand for their services than they could meet even before the pandemic, according to data on their websites. 2020-2021 data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information show about half of Canadians waited 22 days to see a counsellor, while some waited as long as four months.

The cost of seeking mental health care can be a major obstacle. About 78 per cent of Canadians who responded to a survey by the Canadian Psychological Association said they found the high cost of treatment a significant barrier to their accessing mental health services.

Professional mental health care is difficult to make affordable, says Ava Oleson, associate professor of counselling at Tyndale University and a licensed marriage and family therapist, partly because there’s a limit to how low professional counsellors can set their rates and still make a living. Oleson also provides counselling for an American faith-based agency called Journey Counselling, which offers subsidized counselling for people who can’t afford to pay for it out of pocket. To do that, the agency relies heavily on interns and people nearer the beginning of their careers, she says, who are often skilled and proficient care providers nonetheless. But for deeper-seated and more complex issues like lifelong addiction, there may be no substitute for more advanced training and experience.

That doesn’t mean help can come only from professional therapists, however. Oleson says local parishes can take care of people with needs for lower intensity interventions through pastoral care and community support programs. Church leaders and volunteers can also help, she says, by keeping an eye out for anyone in need of more advanced care and being prepared to refer them to professionals.

“At the church that I attend, when one of the parishioners presents as needing skilled care that maybe the pastors feel is beyond them, then [the pastors] will reach out to me or to one of the other therapists in the church and say, ‘Hey, we’re working with this person, but we think that they may have an eating disorder, and so we think they need a bit more skilled help. Could you connect us with the right therapist?’ ” she says.

At the same time, Oleson adds, clinicians and therapists can pitch in to help train volunteers to provide a higher level of care in the church’s programs. That way, parishes can provide care to people they’re qualified to help and reduce the number of visits to expensive professionals.

Leslie Roberts, director of communications, Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. Photo: Sanctuary Mental Health

That type of training is exactly what Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries provides with its Sanctuary Course, says Leslie Roberts, the Vancouver-based ecumenical charity’s director of communications. The organization started out giving in-person training to churches in Vancouver in 2012, then developed the materials for its online training course beginning in 2016 to expand its reach beyond where it could send its staff. The point is to help churches teach their parishioners and volunteers a shared vocabulary and psychological and theological frameworks to understand how to care for people experiencing mental health problems. The course launched in 2018 and served an estimated 4,455 participants that year. In 2020, traffic on Sanctuary’s website shot up by 650 per cent, Roberts says, as churches searched for ways to take care of their parishioners’ mental health amid the crisis. By 2021, 170,000 people had gone through the training.

“With the slowdown in in-person things, there was this rise in recognition of the importance of mental health in the public sphere and I think within the church,” she says. Like Oleson, Roberts says church mental-health programs can bolster the options available for people in need of less comprehensive intervention and thereby take some of the pressure off the system as a whole.

For the friends and family members she has supported through mental illness, and for those like herself who support them, says Mary, having a place to go and talk about these struggles without needing to commit to professional intervention would be a huge help. Having the church, she says, was certainly helpful for her—though she thinks some might be more comfortable if they knew they could talk without being pressured to engage with spiritual matters first. She even suggests churches consider advertising mental health support—through group or one-on-one conversations—as an option to people outside their doors.

If clergy and lay people are going to offer this kind of intervention, they will need to pay careful attention to ensuring the experience is safe—both for the people receiving care and for the clergy and laypeople providing it, says Clare Burns, chancellor of General Synod. For structured counseling programs like Stephen Ministry or a lay pastoral care team, she says, proper supervision is a vital component. She points out that church institutions, especially dioceses and theological colleges, provide training on things like the boundaries of appropriate pastoral care, the duty to report to police or child protective services in cases with a danger of violent abuse and on policies designed to prevent misconduct or power imbalances on the part of church representatives. In addition to the existing standard of performing screenings and police checks on those entering formal caregiving roles, she says, it’s important for parishes to ensure that diocesan and theological college training reaches laypeople to provide them the tools to care safely.

Equally important, she says, is ensuring that not just formal caregivers but all regular members of a congregation are aware of what supports their parishes are offering. That way, when someone comes looking for support—or they hear of a need from a fellow parishioner—they can refer them to the best available tools or people. Combined with ensuring that caregivers are well trained in when to refer a case to a more professional form of intervention, she says, this approach can help ensure those providing care are doing so within the bounds of what they are qualified for without putting themselves or their charges at risk by getting out of their depth.

Sheilagh McGlynn, animator for youth ministries, Anglican Church of Canada Photo: Alyson Scott

Another way churches can help, says Sheilagh McGlynn, the Anglican Church of Canada’s animator for youth ministries and herself a registered psychotherapist, is by creating a sense of belonging and a system of support which, if implemented well, can head off feelings of isolation and provide emotional support before mental illness escalates. These can be an especially powerful tool for youth, who she says, were particularly hard-hit by isolation during lockdowns.

McGlynn says she can see a vital function in this kind of community-building work. For people who already have strong support systems, a sense of community belonging and other resources at the “soft” end of the continuum, she says, a crisis may not necessitate moving as far up the scale toward formalized care. “Maybe they [have] to progress one step instead of five,” she says. “I do think that everything we can do to provide a space for young people to be cared about, to know that they’re loved and accepted for who they are, will help them not have to step along that process farther.”

As a therapist, one of the first questions she asks new clients is what kind of support system they have in their life to help them bear the weight of their struggles. That’s one role the church is well suited to play, she says, using a metaphor that describes the different levels of care someone might need as a series of increasingly sturdy safety nets to catch them when they fall.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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