Fort Wayne-area Christian congregations encouraged to reach out to help people suffering from mental illness

The Lutheran Foundation hopes to encourage area religious congregations to be more caring and supportive to people suffering from mental illness. (From FreeImages)

In the faith community, mental health problems have a reputation as a “no casserole” illness.

When someone in a family suffers a serious illness or is hospitalized, people in their religious congregation frequently deliver food for the family, said the Rev. Dennis Goff, director of ministry programs for the Lutheran Foundation in Fort Wayne.

That often doesn’t happen when the health issue involves mental illness, Goff added.

That’s why the Lutheran Foundation has been working for the past few years to create more awareness among congregations about the need to help and support people dealing with mental illness, Goff said.

The effort continues with the SpeakUp conference Wednesday at the Mirro Center for Research and Innovation at Parkview Health off Dupont Road.

More than 500 people are expected to attend from Christian congregations in Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana, Goff said. The event is sold out.

Those attending will learn more about the prevalence of mental illness and how they can help people impacted by the it.


National statistics estimate one in four people in America are dealing with some form of mental health issue, Goff said.

“We are saying to churches, ‘That is one in four in your congregation,'” he said.

At the same time, there is a stigma attached to having a mental illness or behavioral issue, both in the community and in a faith congregation, Goff said.

In many congregations, mental illness is viewed as resulting from a weak faith, he said.

“We want to emphasize … that mental health is not a faith weakness,” Goff said. “It is a medical issue.”


Many kinds of physical and emotional trauma can trigger mental illness or mental health problems, said Laura Hoffman, clinical director at Lutheran Social Services of Indiana in Fort Wayne.

Hoffman will present the breakout learning session “The Basics of Becoming a Trauma-Informed Congregation” at the SpeakUp conference.

Hoffman said potential causes of individual trauma include:

• A serious traffic accident involving yourself or a family member

• Death of a family member or good friend

• Personal illness, such as a severe case of cancer

• Divorce

• Being the victim of violence or a disaster


Groups of people also can be affected by shared trauma, Hoffman said, such as:

• The sudden death or serious illness of a congregation leader

• Disagreements leading to the congregation splitting into separate groups

• Violence or disaster, such as the attack Sunday at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people where killed.

Seventy percent of U.S. adults will experience some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives, the organization PTSD United said on its website, www.ptsdunited.org. Up to 20 percent of those adults will go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the website said.


Signs that a person may be experiencing mental health problems include withdrawal from congregation services and events, aggression, frustration and irritability, Hoffman said.

In many congregations, however, people don’t know what to say to the person exhibiting symptoms.

“They need to be loved,” she said. “They need to be pulled into the congregation. They need to be cared for.”

Hoffman said congregation members can take two key steps to reach out to a person experiencing mental health problems because of trauma:

• Instead of asking, “What is wrong with you?” ask, “What happened?” Hoffman said.

That opens the door to discussion and makes it easier for the person to talk about what happened to him or her, she said.

• Instead of trying to fix things or offer advice, just listen to the person.

By becoming more inviting and supportive, congregations can go a long way toward empowering healing in a person with mental illness, Hoffman said. Congregations also should be prepared to offer resources and referrals to ensure people receive the professional help they need, she added.


Area Christian congregations that want more information on how to help people suffering from mental illness can contact Lutheran Social Services of Indiana at 1-260-426-3347.


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