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Hostile Territory: Helping Families Impacted by Mental Illness Overcome Barriers to Attending Church


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In this presentation, Dr. Grcevich identifies eight barriers families often encounter in attending church when kids experience emotional or behavioral challenges and shares practical ideas for pastors, church staff and volunteers looking to help families overcome the barriers.

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Hostile Territory: Helping Families Impacted by Mental Illness Overcome Barriers to Attending Church

  1. 1. Stephen Grcevich, MD Director of Strategic Initiatives, Key Ministry Presented at An Inclusive Children’s Ministry Conference Christ Church United Methodist Louisville, Kentucky November 7, 2015 Hostile Territory Helping Families Impacted by Mental Illness Overcome Barriers to Attending Church
  2. 2. See a different world…  How is the nature of disability different in kids with mental illness?  A different paradigm for thinking about disability – mindset vs. program  What are the barriers to church involvement?  Seven strategies for overcoming barriers  A different model of ministry…
  3. 3. Some guiding principles for mental health inclusion at church…  A mindset…not a program  Helping kids, families join what you already do  Focus on overcoming barriers to social connection, communication  Design environments that promote self- regulation, minimize anxiety  No church/school/organization can do everything, but every church can do something!
  4. 4. A very large potential ministry field!  22% identified with at least one mental disorder  11% have been treated with ADHD medication  8-12% of teens experience anxiety disorders  13% identified with developmental disorders  The majority of the 1 in 68 kids diagnosed with autism are of average/superior intelligence! Carter, AS et al. J. Am Acad. Child Adolesc Psychiatry 2010;49(7): 686-698 Visser et al. J Am Acad. Child Adolesc Psychiatry 2014;53(1): 34-46 Boulet, SL, Boyle CA, Schieve, LA. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(1):19-26.
  5. 5. What comes to mind when you think about “disability?”
  6. 6. What comes to mind when you think of special needs ministry?
  7. 7. Is a disability a disability if someone is disabled some of the time?
  8. 8. Do the environments and culture of the church cause disability? “It is our culture that disables.” “When one is disabled, the problem is not really that they have impairments and social skill deficits. The issue at stake is that they live in an ‘ableist’ culture that rarely affords them the space or opportunity to make their unique contribution to society and does not lift up the value of choosing them as friends.” Ben Conner…Amplifying Our Witness (2012)
  9. 9. Barriers to including kids with mental illness at church… Church… Where does she fit in?  Social isolation  Social communication  Anxiety/Fear  Capacity for self-regulation  Sensory processing  Reluctance to self-identify  Stigma  Parents with mental illness
  10. 10. Social isolation… Church, school, community… Where does he fit in?  Avoidance, withdrawal common symptoms  Kids may be less desirable as friends  Less likely to be involved in youth sports, extracurricular activities  Parents struggle to find child care necessary to maintain social life
  11. 11. Expectations for social interaction… Church, school, community… Where does he fit in?  Are social skills necessary at church?  Kids may fail to process…or are unable to process social cues  Negotiating large group and small group environments  Challenges greater in unfamiliar situations  When bullies attend church…
  12. 12. The impact of anxiety on social interaction… Church… Where do they fit in?  Overestimate potential risk in new relationships, situations  Fears persist longer than developmentally appropriate  Avoidance of situations with potential for scrutiny by others  Persistent worry about performance  Prone to perception that anxiety is caused by a lack of faith (See Phil 4:6-7)
  13. 13. Regulating emotions or behavior… Church, school, community… Where does he fit in?  Capacity to manage impulses, hide observable aspects of behavior  Understanding of “executive functioning”  Why “structure” helps
  14. 14. Sensory Processing… Church… What they experience…  A trait associated with autism, anxiety, ADHD  Sound, light, touch, taste and smells readily tolerated by others may be aversive  Transition times often present greatest challenge
  15. 15. The reluctance to self-disclose… Church… Where does he fit in?  Desperate need to not be different!  Kids, families FLEE special education/special needs  How are church staff to know who needs help when disabilities aren’t always evident?
  16. 16. Stigma… Stigma in church WORSE than school, community… What then, is wrong with the “mentally ill”? Their problem is autogenic; it is in themselves… Jay Adams Mental illness defined as sin, or a parenting problem  Widespread perception they’re not welcome at church  If it’s not a disability, why would disability ministry serve them?
  17. 17. Parents with mental illness… Church… Where do they fit in?  Multigenerational issue  Parent who couldn’t go to church have kids with no experience of church  Kids depend on parents for transportation  Parents struggle with executive functioning too!  Inconsistent attenders?
  18. 18. Seven strategies for promoting mental health inclusion (TEACHER)  Team: Build an inclusion team  Environments: Establish welcoming ministry environments  Activities with high impact: Prioritize inclusion in activities most essential to spiritual growth  Communicate: Implement a church/ministry-wide communication strategy  Help: Meet heartfelt needs of families outside the church  Education and support  Responsibility: Ministry is owned by everyone in the church
  19. 19. Who needs a seat at the table? Building an inclusion team  Senior leadership must endorse, recruit  Ministry directors on church- wide implementation team  Departments may have their own inclusion team  Consider mental health professionals, advocates, family members, occupational therapists, interior designers, social workers, educators, media specialists, anyone passionate for the ministry
  20. 20. Welcoming ministry environments for persons with mental health diagnoses  Help attendees maintain focus and attention.  Help attendees prioritize most important takeaways  Support those with difficulty processing directions.  Provides engaging, but not overwhelming sensory stimulation  Help kids maintain self- control
  21. 21. Inclusion in high-impact ministry activities  What do you MOST want people to do to grow in faith in Jesus?  What help do they need to get there?  Weekend worship?  Small groups?  Prayer/family devotions/serving
  22. 22. Components of a church-wide communication strategy  Preach it from the pulpit!  What NOT to say  Pictures, video  Bulletins, printed materials  E-communication  Social media  Online church inclusion  Inclusion “concierge?”
  23. 23. Help that promotes relationships…  Casseroles  Respite  Referral services  Counseling  Special worship services  After-school programs  Parent advocates for kids on 504 plans, in special education  Tutoring at-risk kids
  24. 24. Education and support Advancing the Kingdom through coffee and donuts  “Grace Groups” – individual, family, PTSD curriculums  NAMI Family to Family, Peer to Peer  Fresh Hope  Diagnosis-specific groups (CHADD)
  25. 25. Responsibility for inclusion ministry is owned by everyone!  Responding to needs wherever they’re planted  Grabbing a mop  Relational respite  Distribute business cards with respite invitations  1:1 discipleship  Parent mentors  “Ministry of presence”
  26. 26. Overcoming social isolation… Church Go and tell!  Include “neurotypical” siblings at respite events  Provide food or transportation assistance to a neighbor in need  Invite a kid for a play date  Advertise online worship services to families with mental illness in your community
  27. 27. Including those who struggle with social communication… Church… Where do they fit in?  Partner with parents  Address physical environments where ministry takes place  Let them use precocious gifts to serve others  Identify “friendly” small groups  Opportunity to rehearse new experiences  Promote disability awareness, address bullying  Alternative paths of discipleship (mentoring)
  28. 28. Overcoming the anxiety barrier… Church… Where do they fit in?  Prepare them for first visit  Lots of pictures, video of your ministry environments  Avoid drawing attention to self- conscious kids  Don’t shame them  Pathway for introverts?
  29. 29. Helping kids who struggle to regulate emotions and behavior… Church Helping them fit in?  Friendly physical environments  Sequence of activities? (high-energy last?)  Supervise transition times  Developmentally- appropriate content  Some may be better with physical activity, movement
  30. 30. Helping kids who struggle with sensory processing… Church… What they experience…  Sensory-friendly entrances  Review your ministry environments (lighting, sound, use of color)  Alternative activities for kids with sensory issues  Monitor transition times closely
  31. 31. Overcoming stigma in the church… Stigma in church WORSE than school, community…  Talk about it on Sunday morning  Encourage families in the church to share their stories  Start or host a support group  Share helpful links, articles, sermons through social media  Value kids, adults with mental illness by serving them
  32. 32. Helping those who won’t self-disclose… Church… Helping them fit in  Consider interventions to help all kids, families  Review registration materials  Communicating with parents  Floating support in your children’s, student ministries
  33. 33. Including kids…when parents have mental health concerns Church… Helping them fit in  Parents of kids who are inconsistent attenders?  They may need more reminders to come  Watch for folks who haven’t attended for some time  Community helps with accountability
  34. 34. Takeaway points…  Kids with mental illness and their families represent one of your church’s greatest outreach opportunities.  Mental health inclusion is a mindset…not a program  Focus on barriers to connection, communication  Design ministry environments that promote self- regulation, engaging vs. overwhelming  No church can do everything, but every church can do something!
  35. 35. Key Ministry promotes meaningful connection between churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Free training, consultation, support and resources What Does Key Ministry Do?
  36. 36. Stay in Touch! Key Ministry Website: Church4EveryChild…Key Ministry Blog: www!/drgrcevich!/KeyMinistry