For someone living with the many different forms of anxiety or depression, attending church can be next to impossible. We must start accepting the fact that as diverse as the human race is physically, it is also diverse mentally. There are many people who cannot attend a social function of any sorts, no matter if it is in the name of worshiping God, or not. Crowds, noises, and other stimulation become too much for those with mental health issues like PTSD, social anxiety disorder or panic attacks and this keeps many at home on Sunday mornings.
Statistics show that 1/4 of your congregation is currently dealing with one mental health issue or another. 1 in 4 Americans are currently dealing with something mentally or emotionally, so we need to understand this in order to help them.
It is not a matter of people not wanting to attend church, it is that they currently can’t attend church. I suffer from P.T.S.D due to severe abuse in a past marriage. For a very long time, any social function was too much. Even going to Walmart and being amongst a crowd for more than 15 minutes became too much. A loud sudden noise still makes my heart feel like it is going to jump out of my chest, that noise, steals my very breath. Being in a room full of strangers was just too much for me for many years. Small groups in small doses, that is all I could handle.
Those that suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder, are overcome with extreme anxiety and even panic attacks if forced into a social setting. Then you have those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder who may have various legitimate reasons for shying away from church attendance. OCD can be about order but it can also be about obsessive thoughts of cleanliness. Many people with OCD may not like being touched by strangers during the customary greeting period at the church. Other mental health issues may make others feel this is intrusive and unwelcome as well. Not everyone is comfortable with hugs, handshakes or being touched by people.
Last year I made the mistake of taking my mental wellness group to a Sanctis Real concert at another local church. The music was too loud, the lights too intense and their flashing caused many anxieties. One woman even had a fear of driving after dark, which I failed to think about. It was a lesson learned that I will never repeat. The large group of screaming and singing fans didn’t make this trip pleasant for those that attended with me. It was a total fail, as we discussed it at the next meeting, I started to understand just how much of an effect this had on each participants lives. Even the things that should be enjoyable, are terrifying for some.
To a more extreme end of the spectrum, some people have a fear of leaving their homes. Those people are really going to have a hard time going to church on any sort of committed basis and probably will not attend at all. We have to realize that there are legitimate issues that many people are facing alone, just because it is awkward explaining them to others. Telling a Pastor that you can’t attend church because of anxiety or depression can lead to difficult conversations that many are just not ready to have. So they quietly just refrain from coming to church.
There are in fact, so many different mental health disorders, illness, and issues it is probably one of the leading reasons many no longer attend church. During the cold and flu season, you will see a natural decrease in your attendee numbers as parishioners are often out nursing a virus. Have you ever stopped to wonder how many people who have left the church or are absent often, may actually be absent because they are dealing with a mental health issue?
The guy that seems to be the comedian, always making jokes, could he be suffering from depression or anxiety and using humor as a coping mechanism? Maybe you notice his attendance is iffy and sporadic. The little lady who just lost her husband to cancer and now barely makes it to church, perhaps depression is keeping her locked inside a secret prison, not only on Sunday but on every day. The little boy that can’t sit still and causes his mom and dad to run repeatedly back and forth to the nursery to avoid the disdainful stares of others, does this child have Autism, ADD or any other emotional disturbances?
We have to start understanding just how important a healthy mind is to a healthy life. If a person is suffering silently with any of the multitudes of mental illnesses or mental health issues we now know exist, they need our support, not condemnation. We need to be aware that mental illness can keep a person from attending church just as quickly and surely as physical illness can. We need to start taking into consideration that not everyone is comfortable with being touched or called out to publicly speak. We need to be more compassionate and empathetic to the mental health concerns of our congregations.
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