What If a Parent ALSO Has Mental Health Issues?


Ministry leaders should think about the potential barriers to church participation that exist for families in which a child and/or a parent experience significant mental health concerns.

I’ve never been out hunting, golfing or skiing, despite the reality that a fair number of my friends and neighbors engage in all of those activities on a regular basis. Why not? Neither my family nor my wife’s family ever did any of those activities when we were young. My father was an athlete as a young man who took me with him during my growing up years when he worked as a public address announcer in stadiums and arenas near our home. My experiences attending sporting events with my dad probably explains why my free time as an adult has been spent as a disgruntled season ticket holder for our three “professional” sports teams here in Cleveland. What we do with our parents in our youth forms traditions and routines that we in turn share with our kids.

Any effective strategy to include kids with mental illness or trauma histories at church needs to take into consideration the barriers that have excluded the child’s parents or caregivers from attending church. After all, if Mom or Dad aren’t coming to church, it’s highly unlikely that their kids will be coming to church. And when we’re talking about kids experiencing mental health concerns that keep them from church, there’s a reasonable possibility that their mother or father experienced or continue to experience similar difficulties that kept them from attending church.

60-90% of the risk for ADHD is attributable to genetics. Roughly one in three children of parents with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression will develop a serious mental illness…and not necessarily the same mental illness as their parent. A parental history of anxiety (especially maternal history) contributes to a two to seven-fold increase in the risk for anxiety in their offspring. When we take into consideration the impact of our children’s and youth ministry environments in our inclusion strategy for kids with mental illness, we should also consider the impact of the ministry environments their parents need to navigate.

Here’s an illustration I shared during a recent church training…it’s a great exercise for pastors or ministry leaders in thinking about just how many potential barriers to church participation exist for families in which a child and/or a parent experience significant mental health concerns…

Debbie is a single mom living down the street from your church with her twelve year-old daughter and eight year-old son. Her son (completely neurotypical) is invited to your Vacation Bible School by one of his friends from school, has a great time and wants his family to come to church every week. Debbie has Social Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia, while her daughter has Separation Anxiety Disorder. 

What difficulties might Debbie experience in…

  • Navigating her way around church for her first few visits?
  • Registering her kids for age-appropriate ministry activities?
  • Sitting through a worship service in a sanctuary/auditorium filled to near capacity?
  • Responding to a welcoming phone call from your hospitality team?
  • Participating in a small group?
  • Participating in a family service activity?
  • Participating in a multi-family activity?

What difficulties might Debbie’s daughter experience in…

  • Separating from her mother for her age-appropriate worship service?
  • Attending the middle school retreat?
  • Participating in the middle school mission trip?
  • Doing the weekend “lock-in” at church?

Ministry to kids with mental illness is frequently (out of necessity) family ministry.

Dr. Steve Grcevich is a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry who serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry. He blogs at church4everychild.org and may be reached at steve@keyministry.org. 

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