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Phrases Pastors Can Use to Support A Mental Health Concern

When someone in your congregation presents a Mental Health need, navigating the conversation can be difficult. The first step in supporting someone who appears to be having emotional difficulty is identifying signs and symptoms. If you're not sure whether or not something is a true crisis or concern, we have a help sheet on our Resources page. Once you have determined that the conversation while concerning, doesn't require emergency services, provide the person with whom you are talking space to open up and feel supported. Express concern and show empathy by allowing the person to talk freely. Use the person's name throughout the conversation and keep your tone of voice slow, patient, and calm.

The most important thing to remember is that ultimately, a mental health professional should be directly involved in supporting mental health concerns, especially if they are ongoing. In the meantime, here are some ways to support a mental health concern if one should arise during pastoral ministry.

someone sits with one hand on the other wrist around their knees

Authentically paraphrase:

One of the quickest ways to de-escalate someone whose emotions are overwhelming is to make them feel heard. Acknowledge their feelings in an authentic, genuine way. Try to name the feelings or group of feelings they have named and use the same or similar words without sounding like a parrot. It is important to make them feel heard, but if you pick up from their body language that what you've said doesn't feel authentic, switch to head nods or different phrasing. It's okay to label someone's pain and doing so may be more supportive than we realize. For example:

"Your friends haven't been as responsive as you'd like and that feels lonely, scary and isolating"
"That conflict has you worried and you aren't sure how to move forward"
"This is hard for me to talk about, and maybe it is difficult for you, too."
someone with hands extended talks to another person

Stay Receptive & Available:

Position your body so the person knows you are listening and supporting them. Face them and keep your hands open and relaxed. Use affirming sounds and words to show you are listening, such as "mmm-hm" and "wow". Consider how the cultural background and perceptions of the person are impacting your conversation. Give them eye contact and physical space with these in mind. Show how receptive and available you are by using phrases that express empathy and seek out more information. For example:

"I can't imagine how difficult that must have been, what has that been like for you?"
"What are some things you've done to deal with this in the past?"
"This is a safe space, you can always come to me when you need to talk about things."
a young woman sits with hands together on a couch

Identify the Hope:

As the person shares their thoughts and feelings, and you've created a space for them to open up and express themselves, it's best to close out the conversation by identifying the hope for the future. These could be things to look forward to or how to see the wider perspective. Often the most difficult part about being in a scary or frustrating place emotionally, is that it is so hard to see how the feelings are only temporary, especially if they are frequent. We can help someone by identifying the ways we are all connected and strategies for self-care and processing. For example:

"Who is someone you can connect and check in with?
"What is something you are looking froward to this week?"
"How can we make a plan to highlight something that will make you feel successful the next few days?"

Despite the conversation going well or not, it is necessary to establish an explicit follow-up to the conversation, especially when the concern for risk of self harm is high. Again, to determine if a mental health issue is simply a concern or is a true crisis, see our Concern or Crisis Visual. If the conversation seems to have resolved but there are still lingering concerns, point the person to seeking therapy or meeting more regularly. If a crisis is happening, focus on de-escalating the person and maintaining the safety of all those around. Stay with the person and immediately contact emergency services via first responders or the closest behavioral health center.


*If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, call a suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741. For those who are hearing or speech impaired, call 1-800-799-4TTY.*


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