Faith-Based First Responders

Apr 22, 2014
By: Kimberly Konkel, MSW, Associate Director for Health, HHS Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Anne Mathews-Younes, Ed.D., D.Min, Director of SAMHSA Division of Prevention, Traumatic Stress and Special Programs

A recent survey in North Carolina found depression rates among United Methodist clergy were twice as high as the general public.

The researchers suggest that unique demands of the job, including job stress, guilt about not doing enough, and doubts about one’s call to the ministry put clergy mental health at risk. While many factors undoubtedly contribute, there might be another possible explanation – the trauma that clergy encounter on a daily basis.

The mental health field has long recognized the impact of “secondary” or “vicarious” trauma. Bearing witness to another person’s trauma can itself be traumatic, and can activate feelings and behaviors associated with earlier traumatic experiences clergy may have had in their own lives.

Vicarious trauma is as relevant to clergy as it is to other people in the helping and first-responder professions. Many Americans turn to clergy before they turn to mental health professionals, and like other “first responders,” faith leaders carry a heavy load. 

Pam Hyde, Administrator at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, recently spoke with Mormon Mental Health, an organization which was created to inform and connect the over 6 million Mormons in America seeking mental health services with resources and professionals, about a variety of mental health problems that affect society as a whole.

The conversation included discussion on how those within the Mormon faith can be confident that they are well-equipped to deal with the individual and familial concerns that come up within congregations and faith-based communities.

Hyde points out that it is often faith leaders who are first responders to situations dealing with mental health and substance use crises. She also shares statistics that explain how we are all affected, either personally or through family members/friends, when it comes to these health concerns.

In 2012, an estimated 43.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had any mental illness in the past year. This represents 18.6% of all adults in this country. People with mental illness are not on the fringes of society. We sit together at work, at church, at the baseball game, and at the dinner table.

Hyde’s interview is helpful for clergy, lay faith leaders, and people who are active in religious communities. It provides perspective about the prevalence of mental health issues in all religious communities and suggestions for how faith communities and leaders can help.

To learn more about what you can do in your congregation to support mental health please visit:

To learn more about behavioral health preparedness and response for faith-based communities and spiritual leaders, see SAMHSA's Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series.

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Tagged Trauma | Treatment | Depression | Help