A Mental Health Crisis Happens at the Church – Now What?

If your church does not have procedures for dealing with an unexpected crisis, what do you do?

A Mental Health Crisis Happens at the Church – Now What?
Doug Reed
Oct 2, 2023

It’s no secret that churches across the country are on the front lines of the burgeoning mental health crisis.  More and more people in our society are challenged by substance abuse, extreme personality disorders, mood disorders or just feeling abandoned and overwhelmed by the complexities of day-to-day life.  With more questions than answers, people are now turning to their neighborhood churches seeking solace, guidance, and help.

Many churches now have well-developed policies and procedures for dealing with unexpected confrontations, including mental health crises.  These policies are shared among clergy, support staff, lay leadership, church security, and in some instances local first responders.  This is often supported by hands-on training to equip staff with the knowledge and confidence to respond most effectively.  It’s critical to have a ready list of mental health providers and emergency personnel to call upon for referrals and professional support.

But if your church does not have procedures for dealing with an unexpected crisis, what do you do?

Consider the following scenario, which plays out many Sunday mornings in our community churches.  An individual has been battling undiagnosed anxiety and severe mood swings.  He has been attempting to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, but to no avail.  In fact, this makes him begin to feel even worse.  With no end to the suffering in sight, he shows up to his local church on Sunday morning.  He's not a member, but thinks that surely the church can help.  Isn’t that what churches do, heal people?

As Christians we learned at an early age to never turn our back on those who are suffering, to exercise God’s grace for those in need.  But exactly how do we do this?

First, educate yourself on signs of escalated behavior.  This could involve verbal or non-verbal cues that the individual is agitated.  These cues can be subtle or very obvious – a raised voice, fidgety hand gestures, disheveled appearance, or perhaps speaking incoherently.  These can be signs of feeling misunderstood and facing a complex emotional issue.

Next, using a firm but calm and reassuring tone, try to direct the individual to a quiet but safe location away from others.  Tap into your own self-awareness so that you don’t intensify the situation.  Stay calm, use a non-threatening demeanor, and try to mitigate your tension through controlled breathing.

Once you’re in a controlled environment, de-escalate the immediate situation by speaking with the individual in a direct but supportive manner.  Consider the following:

  • Ask open-ended questions to better understand the crisis from the individual’s perspective.
  • Summarize the concern expressed by the individual to gain some level of clarity and acceptance.
  • Provide a level of reassurance so that the individual feels safe and understood.

If these de-escalation measures are not successful and the interaction remains or becomes extreme, attempt to keep the individual isolated while calling for emergency personnel.  It’s important not to lay hands on or touch the individual.  Protect yourself and others.  Clearly state your personal boundaries -- what you can or cannot do to assist the individual.

Once the situation has been effectively managed, it’s always a good idea to follow up with a formal after-incident review to document what took place, the measures used to de-escalate the situation, and any recommended referrals.

Beacon of Light is developing curriculum to effectively train and equip churches and their leadership to be more aware of, and to address, a variety of mental health challenges. To learn more about developing de-escalation strategies for your church, please contact Beacon of Light at contact@beaconoflightmh.org.