As Steve Sullivan and psychologists convened small groups of mental health providers and clergy over the past two years, they learned that lack of trust creates barriers to integrated care.
Armed with a grant from Bristol Myers Squibb, VA Mental Health and Chaplaincy led one-day interactive training events in 13 sites across the country. Each event brought together 15 to 50 clergy and mental health providers. Participants viewed a series of professionally produced videos featuring a psychiatrist and an ecumenical group of pastors and counselors discussing their own struggles and lessons learned from dealing with those who have mental health struggles in their congregations.
The events also focused on the mental health and spiritual needs of returning veterans, concluding with a case study on “moral injury,” what many veterans experience when they perpetrate or witness events in combat that go against deeply held convictions.
Sullivan, a Baptist who serves as community coordinator through the VA Mental Health and Chaplaincy program in Durham, N.C., also worked with a team that offered four 20-minute videos for use in faith communities. The series, “A Place to Call Home,” covers issues such as trauma, moral injury and belonging.
From these experiences, Sullivan reported three findings.
First, leaders from the various faith communities decided they were not welcoming to each other. This revelation was sparked by the most popular video used in the series, on “Belonging.”
This lack of trust in each other was identified as a barrier to serving veterans and others who come to churches with mental health needs. And it spills over to internal workings of congregations as well.
“If those in our congregations are not experiencing welcoming and belonging in their own communities, how then could they welcome others with mental health and veteran issues and give them a sense of belonging?” Sullivan asked. Faith leaders discovered that because they were not vulnerable to each other they “couldn’t see themselves as encouraging vulnerability toward those with unique sufferings.”
Sullivan said he’s seen this same barrier in many congregations. “They say that Sunday mornings are the most segregated hour of the week, but they also may be one of the least welcoming and least vulnerable.”
Second, faith leaders and mental health providers discovered they see the other as less trustworthy than themselves.
“Leaders are mistrustful of each other because they simply don’t know each other.”
“My 10-year work in bringing mental health and clergy together also bears out that leaders are mistrustful of each other because they simply don’t know each other,” Sullivan said.
He recalled that while serving in Arkansas, “we were able to simply get 10 pastors and providers together in the back of a Western Sizzlin’ and let them ‘go at it.’ The honesty that emerged in a safe place was similar to what we experienced in our Collaborating in Care trainings, where relationships and trust emerged after a lengthy and honest discussion of barriers and bad experiences.”
The same building of relationships could happen in every community through what he calls “pew and couch” luncheons to foster relationships between mental health providers and faith leaders.
Third, the VA chaplains learned that more work is needed on these issues. “The one-day events led participants to desire follow-up and more intensive efforts to collaborate with one another as a group,” Sullivan said. “This is incredibly important for those seeking to make an ongoing difference in their communities or in their collaboration.”
His experience shows that success may depend on lay leaders as much or more as clergy, though.
“Laypeople are often those with the bandwidth and passion to carry out any type of unique ministry such as to veterans and those with mental health issues,” Sullivan said. “This is true of just about any community efforts as well.”
Editor’s note: The videos are available for use in congregations and may be accessed here.