Does Collaborative Care Include Working with Faith-based Organizations?

Rev. Douglas Ronsheim, D.Min
Executive Director, American Association of Pastoral Counselors

For many decades, spirituality has been an integral aspect of substance abuse recovery. With the power of faith as part of the equation, 12-step programs have proved effective for millions of participants, saving lives and helping people recover from life-threatening addictions.

In more recent years, the roles of faith and religion have spilled over into the larger conversation surrounding mental health. There’s been significant progress made in this sphere and there’s much to discuss about the role of spirituality in today’s therapeutic landscape.

Given the significant role that spiritual and religious faith plays in the lives of Americans (in a 2012 PEW Research study, nearly 80 percent said they practice some type of religion or spirituality), faith communities and their leaders have become more actively involved in the care and support of individuals and families dealing with mental health issues. In many ways, faith communities are the nation’s de facto mental health system. My work at the AAPC has given me a firsthand look at this reality.

Research shows that a person’s faith leader is often the first professional they turn to for a wide variety of issues. A Health Services Research study showed that 25 percent of those who’ve ever sought treatment for mental disorders did so from a faith leader, and nearly one-quarter of those seeking help from a faith leader have serious mental disorders.

Spiritual leaders of every faith are becoming more actively involved in addressing this growing need. And while there’s still a long way to go in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues and helping individuals and families get the care they need, it’s important for people to know that religious and spiritual communities are an appropriate place to turn for assistance and support.

I’m Douglas Ronsheim, the Executive Director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), a collaborative partner of Care for Your Mind. I’ll be leading CFYM readers through a series of posts dedicated to the discussion of religion, spirituality, faith communities, and mental health. In each of these, we’ll look at specific challenges, successes, and examples of what’s being done in different communities across the country.

These topics include

Faith Leaders’ Knowledge and Education
Faith Leaders are often the first line of defense for those impacted by mental illness, and it’s clear that—as a group—these leaders need better training and a stronger knowledge base for dealing with mental health issues (their own or those of their congregants). There are organizations working to better prepare and lead faith leaders in this arena and to provide specific examples of the successes and challenges in this field.

Faith Community Unity and Peer Acceptance
Acceptance of one’s peers is a key part of whether a person suffering from mental health issues feels comfortable and supported—hence the importance of a faith community as a positive tool for recovery. Without community support, it’s more likely that people will feel alienated and detached, and perhaps even resist seeking treatment. We’ll look at specific faith communities that are embracing acceptance and how their efforts affect congregants.

Provider Education and Open-Mindedness
In many cases, faith leaders will refer congregants to a mental health professional in order to help them take the next steps in the healing process. Unfortunately, there’s often a disconnect between the spiritual faith of the consumer and their providers. Bridging the gap between these two paradigms is key when it comes to integrated care. Efforts are being made to open dialogue between providers and faith-based organizations. We’ll look at how this can affect treatment and help people heal.

Large-Scale Advocacy Efforts
In order to help affect change in the mental health landscape on a grander scale, collective advocacy efforts are key. Congregations and communities must come together to stand for the rights of those dealing with mental health issues, and many are doing exactly that. We’ll look at how faith communities can facilitate effective advocacy efforts, as well as what’s being done to address and influence change in this arena.

All four of these topics work together as an interconnected whole, all helping to facilitate the greater acceptance and care within the faith community—across all beliefs—for those living with mental health issues and their families and loved ones. A collaborative care model that accounts for a person’s faith is key, as no one component works in a vacuum.

There’s still a long way to go, but the future is bright for the role of religious and spiritual communities in the progress and evolution of this nation’s mental health landscape.

Your Turn

  • What is the role of faith-based organizations in providing a pathway to recovery and wellness?
  • How has your faith community affected how you have addressed mental health challenges for yourself and others?
  • How have faith-based organizations made an impact in the dialogue around stigma and accessing mental health services?


Rev. Douglas Ronsheim, D.Min, is the Executive Director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, a national certification and membership organization providing training, education and clinical/collaborative community based services to enhance the well-being of individuals, families and communities. He is a Presbyterian minister, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Fellow, AAPC; Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Dr. Ronsheim held faculty appointments in the schools of Social Work and Public Health, University of Pittsburgh; Department of Psychiatry, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, University of Pittsburgh Medical School; and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and served as the ED of Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute for 17 years.

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