As Joe Padilla visits with pastors and church leaders about mental health, he often finds hearts willing to help but ill-equipped to do so.
After walking through his own personal journey when his wife was diagnosed as bipolar, Padilla realized the church needed more training on neurodivergence in order to effectively minister to families.
The Padillas were serving as international missionaries when she was diagnosed and they realized they could not function any longer and returned to the States for treatment and support.
Unfortunately, returning home was not a relief, but actually increased stresses on the family of seven. Padilla realized that his training in ministry had not equipped him to navigate the mental health system. He resigned from a ministry position to provide care for his wife and five children and began a time of intense research. Seeking out support where he could find it, Padilla attended secular support groups and was unable to find anything to reinforce his faith values.
“Going through that trial with my wife was a reformation of my theology of grace,” Padilla said.
Padilla became friends with Matthew Stanford, a professor at Baylor University who helped him through the journey to find ways to help his wife during the recovery process.
After eight years of watching his wife suffer, Padilla began to watch her improve and heal. Her treatment providers began to taper her off medications and she started to function in everyday life once again.
“She is a life transformed,” Padilla said. “I have watched God do an amazing thing restoring our family.”
Drawing from his own experiences and seeking to help guide others, five years ago Padilla joined with Stanford and began the Mental Health Grace Alliance. Its mission is to transform lives, faith communities and society by building a mental health peer/lay-leader movement through support programs, education, training and collaboration.
Through his Mental Health 101 training, Padilla can help ministry leaders know if they are dealing with an issue in a person’s life.
“Ministers need to know tools on how to evaluate, recognize and respond when people are in need,” Padilla said. “When people come to the church, they do not come with a mental health perspective but a spiritual perspective.”
Recognizing the church is often a gateway for individuals in a time of need, Padilla is seeking to educate churches on effective ways to provide care, support and healing.
He now shares with church leaders that not every church needs to begin a counseling program, but that setting up a referral network can often be helpful in caring for individuals who need further care.
Establishing support groups, such as Grace Groups at First Baptist Church in Lewisville, Texas, can help meet families and individuals where they are and provide them with the training and tools to begin the process of recovery.
Grace Alliance has grown exponentially since its inception, and now has offices in Waco, Texas, and Los Angeles, as well as support groups across the nation and around the world.
“I want to help them understand the mental health care system — how the process works and is designed — so they know who their resources in their church and community are. This will help churches build a referral system,” Padilla said.
In the same way a pastor would not be able to provide medical care for a person with diabetes, individuals dealing with mental health issues need to see a medical professional. Padilla encourages pastors to team up with professionals to help them manage that, meanwhile providing spiritual support and encouragement through the process.
“We need to let people know they don’t have to be stuck. There is hope for lives to be transformed no matter the diagnosis, no matter the condition,” Padilla said.
“The stigma of mental illness is associated with failure and it affects emotions and the cognitive level. You can’t function at 100 percent. You can’t process scripture and your faith is not the same,” Padilla said. “When you take that stigma of failure away … you can understand what the Good News is saying.”
According to Padilla, individuals with faith who have a positive association with the character and nature of God recover faster than any other people.
“Having a pastor say, ‘I know you can improve’ can put them on a whole new journey of grace transformation,” he said.
— This story was originally published by Texas Baptist Communications.