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Interacting with People who have Mental Disabilities

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four adults in the U.S. (approximately 57.7 million Americans experience a mental health disorder in a given year. The World Health Organization reports four of the ten leading causes of disability in the world are mental disorders and by 2020 major depressive illness will be the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children. Mental illness usually strikes individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood.

Mental illness is a term defined as severe disturbances in thinking, feeling, and/or relating. Onset factors may include genetics/heredity, stress, recreational drug use, imbalance from some illnesses, and side effects from certain medications (i.e., steroids, etc.) Positive etiquette for interacting with people who have a mental disability include the following:

  • Become an active listener
  • Avoid patronizing or condescending tones
  • Be sensitive to physical touch – some may appreciate the caring, others may find it threatening
  • Be prepared for anger that has no obvious basis
When a person... Then...
Has trouble with reality Be simple, truthful
Is fearful Stay calm
Is insecure Be accepting
Has trouble concentrating Be brief, repeat
Is overstimulated Limit input
Becomes easily agitated All the person to change
Has poor judgement Don't expect rational thinking
Is preoccupied Get attention first
Is withdrawn Initiate relevant conversation
Keeps changing plans Keep to one plan
Believes delusions Ignore, don't argue
Has little empathy Recognize as a symptom
Has low self esteem Stay positive - encourage

Accessibility Changes
  • Educate the congregation on mental illness (workshops and speakers from community mental health agencies)
  • Provide training for ushers and greeters to know how to greet and support people with mental illness
  • Train members in the congregation to act as companions during services
  • Involve the pastor, head elder and church leaders in establishing a network of support for persons with mental illness in the church
  • Have a referral list of community and area mental health agencies and work with providers when a member has a mental health disorder.



Mental Health Ministries
Mental Health Ministries has the vision of producing high quality resources to reduce the stigma of mental illness in our faith communities.

National Association of Mental Illness FaithNet
The National Association of Mental Illness FaithNet facilitates the development within the faith community of a non-threatening, supportive environment for those with serious mental illness and their families, points out the value of one’s spirituality in the recovery process from mental illness and the need for spiritual strength for those who are caretakers, educates clergy and congregations concerning the biologic basis and characteristics of mental illness, and encourages advocacy of the faith community to bring about hope and help for all who are affected by mental illness.

Pathways to Promise
Pathways to Promise is an interfaith technical assistance and resource center which offers liturgical and educational materials, program models, and networking information to promote a caring ministry with people with mental illness and their families.