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.

Facebook Comments

Grant Eubanks
Grant Eubanks

Hi Douglas,

I feel that there may be a disconnect in the spirituality that the Pew polls show, with a whopping 80% of Americans claiming to be spiritual. Such a large portion of those spiritually active folks are so separate that they act like islands, wondering through life catching relationships as if they were letters in a bottle. These people know they need friends, but there is an invisible barrier preventing them from acting on the perception that the need must be filled.

Can you speak to that challenge?

Douglas Ronsheim
Douglas Ronsheim


Thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts and concerns. Your comment speaks for many people. 

First of all I am most pleased that you have found "both a refuge and a gateway to all kinds of discovery" in your Unitarian Congregation. One of the goals of this initiative is to identify examples of the many faith communities, mosques and congregations where individuals and families, living with mental health and substance use issues, are supported and actively participating. 

This project is a "learning initiative" for all participants, including professionals. One of the reasons AAPC has partnered with Care for Your Mind in this effort is due to its embrace of all perspectives and opinions.

We will also be highlighting behavioral health programs and systems of care that are actively partnering with faith communities as resources for prevention, promotion and recovery. You will note that such important topics will be addressed in future posts. These include: Faith Leaders’ Knowledge and Education, Faith Community Unity and Peer Acceptance, Provider Education and Open-Mindedness and Large-Scale Advocacy Efforts. So keep in touch and let us know how we are doing. 



Just as a psychiatrist should respect your choices as to spiritual expression, I truly hope that faith communities who partner with "Care For Your Mind" will respect their parishioners' choices as to psychiatry.  It scares me to see everyone from pastors to teachers to hairdressers being "educated" in the "correct" attitude towards mental illness -- i.e., that it is a biological brain disease, based on chemical imbalances that the medical community thoroughly understands and can now cure with their wonderful drugs.  

Those of us who have been down that road for many years know that biological psychiatry is still stumbling in the dark. These medications do not cure.  They can do great good for some people and catastrophic harm to others.  The great majority will find there is some benefit, and some harm, and only we will be able to make the tough choices among those imperfect alternatives.  

I am especially concerned that "Care For Your Mind" is funded by two pharmaceutical companies [ed]. It was my trials and tribulations on psychiatric medication over the course of 20+ years that drove me to re-investigate big spiritual and philosophical questions about who I was, who we all were, and what were the grounds for hope?  

The church (Unitarian in my case) has been both a refuge and a gateway to all kinds of discovery.  I cringe when I think it could become a House of Pharma ... Please don't let that happen, Rev. Ronsheim!


You know, for an advocacy blog it seems like it would be important to be advocating on behalf of ALL voices that aren't elevated. Advocating for yourself as a person or family member of someone living with mental illness is immensely difficult as we know-- but where is the conversation about the compounded difficulty of advocating for yourself as BOTH a woman of color AND a person living with mental illness? Or as a member of the LGBTQ community AND living with mental illness? Are these not the groups disproportionately affected by mental illness and the least well-served? I would love to see more posts BOTH that discuss issues that affect our communities AND are written by members of our community. It can't possibly be that difficult to come across "experts" that are black, or women, or queer, or disabled, etc. White men are only representing a small subset of this issue and by only highlighting their voices each week you're doing us all an injustice.


@Anonymous As the Advocacy Advisor for DBSA and a gay man (albeit a white person) your point is well taken. Rest assured that the perspectives of the LGBT commuunity are well represented within the DBSA leadership team. I would invite you to help identify those issues that need further exploration and offer your voice in doing so.  This is a group effort that depends on the resources of all its members to be successful.  

I should note that I am also active in a faith community and am pleased to see that DBSA is reaching out to those who provide pastoral  care as this is a vital link in getting people into the recovery process.  All too many clergy  of all flavors and perspectives lack the skills or perspective on how to appropriately assist a person in mental health crisis. 

So please step out from your anonymity and help us help all.

careforyourmind moderator


Thank you for your comment. A blog that educates and promotes advocacy around mental health issues should ensure that its posts are representative of all constituents. We appreciate your challenge and are committed to seeking a more representative voice. We welcome recommendations for guest posts and invite anyone who has a topic or author they would like featured to please feel free to leave a comment.