A Network of Support: Mental Health and Sacred-Public Partnerships

This article is part of the Sacred-Public Partnerships series, published in collaboration with Shared Justice, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. The series explores the ways in which faith-based organizations the sacred sector and government partner for good. Sacred-Public Partnerships focuses specifically on the intersection of the sacred sector, religious freedom, and government-administered social safety net programs and explores why partnership between government and the sacred sector is essential to the success of social services in the United States.

By Nicole Kennedy

Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness shows that approximately one in five Americans experience mental illness in a given year, and 18.1 percent of adults in the U.S. have at some point experienced an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or a specific phobia. Although mental illness is common, it often goes untreated; only 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition and 62.9 percent of adults with a serious mental illness received mental health services in the past year. Additionally, studies show a clear link between mental illness and other issues, including homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide.

Mental health awareness is a profoundly important topic, as the numbers make clear, and it has recently gained mainstream traction and support. As part of her presidential campaign, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announced a $100 billion plan to combat drug and alcohol addiction and fund mental health treatment. Senator Klobuchar has spoken up about her personal connection to this cause; her father, who suffered from mental illness, began his journey towards recovery when he was “pursued by grace” and became a Christian. Klobuchar’s example demonstrates the interconnectedness of spiritual care and health care.

Due to its resources and infrastructure, the government is well-situated to provide funding for mental health treatment. However, the government often lacks personal connection to communities and individuals that are impacted by the mental health crisis. Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are equipped to make a distinctive contribution by providing vital spiritual care and personalized support to those suffering from mental illness. 

The Mental Health division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) acknowledges the pivotal role of FBOs: 

Faith and community leaders are often the first point of contact when individuals and families face mental health problems or traumatic events. In fact, in times of crisis, many will turn to trusted leaders in their communities before they turn to mental health professionals. When leaders know how to respond, they become significant assets to the overall health system. 

FBOs provide vital services in their communities for those struggling with mental illness. Despite misconceptions, it is possible for FBOs to partner with government without compromising their deeply-held values. The following sections, which draw on HHS’s Mental Health guidelines for FBOs, provide concrete examples of FBOs’ mental health services as well as guidance for FBOs in government partnerships.


FBOs can play a crucial role in educating the public about mental health. The Chicagoland Trauma Informed Congregations Network is a network of FBOs that provides “a vehicle for education, skills transfer and connection of the intersection of faith, trauma, and restorative justice.” This network hosts a “Risking Connection in Faith Communities” workshop, which explores topics such as spirituality and trauma, how we can take care of ourselves as we journey with others who have experienced difficulty and pain, and what we can do together as a community of faith to prevent trauma and restore hope. By combining a trauma-informed lens with a faith-infused focus, the network plays an instrumental role in educating congregations within its community. 

In addition to educating communities and congregants about mental health, FBOs must educate the public about their own faith-based identities. This is especially true when FBOs enter partnerships with and receive funding from the government. 

Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, is “a learning community for faith-based organizations and emerging leaders within the faith-based nonprofit sector to integrate and fully embody their sacred mission in every area of organizational life.” As part of its initiative, Sacred Sector publishes toolboxes that contain guidelines on best practices for FBOs. According to the Sacred Sector Toolbox on Public Policy in Government Partnerships, 

Officials who know that many grantees are religious and regard their religious character as integral to their ability to serve with excellence, are less likely to lapse into a new bias against FBOs. Instead, they will be alert to the ways that FBOs, as participants in a mix of diverse private organizations, are uniquely suited to help the people federal programs are meant to serve. Consequently, FBOs should be transparent about their mission and faith-based character within their communities.


In order to best serve their communities, FBOs should become adept at identifying opportunities to support individuals with mental illness. This process begins with understanding the signs and triggers of trauma and other mental health issues. The Administration for Children and Families, a division of HHS, has published concept papers on six key topics related to mental health. Each of these concept papers contain information on specific triggers and potential solutions for each of these mental health issues. For instance, the Toxic Stress paper explains that traumatic events such as exposure to violence, food insecurity, and incidents of terrorism may all lead to toxic stress. This paper also provides information about trauma-informed solutions and links to scholarly articles and other resources. These guidelines may be instrumental in helping FBOs identify individuals within their communities who suffer  from mental illness or trauma.

Grace Alliance is a coalition of Christian organizations which serves individuals with mental illness by cultivating “healthy solutions for hearts and minds through simple, innovative biblical truths, scientific research and practical tools.” Dale Hull, a pastor at New Life Church in Little Rock, AK, wrote about how his own struggles with mental illness led him to start a group. “After sharing my story and hearing about the hope of the Grace Alliance, I contacted others in our church who had similar stories and we started a Family Grace Group in our church,” he said. Like Pastor Hull, other FBO leaders must identify individuals who need help in order to cultivate healing communities.


The Network of Jewish and Human Services Agencies empowers local Jewish Family Service (JFS) chapters around the nation to support Jewish families in a multitude of ways. In light of heightened anti-Semitism and recent synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, Jewish Family Services plays an instrumental role in helping individuals heal from grief and trauma. Many local JFS chapters, including Jewish Family Service of Houston, TX, also provide dedicated mental health programming for individuals and families in their communities. JFS of Houston offers “Mental Health First Aid” training for those who wish to support their friends and neighbors through mental health challenges. By providing these vital mental health services, JFS serves a crucial role in empowering local Jewish communities. 

The Sacred Sector Toolbox on Public Positioning in Government Partnerships emphasizes the importance of “helping the public understand that the ‘faith’ of an FBO adds to its ability to serve the community beyond only fellow believers.” According to the Toolbox, FBOs should use public messaging to “stress how its services are distinct and effective due to its religious mission and how its government-supported services make positive contributions to the community.” Like Jewish Family Service, all FBOs should strive to emphasize their faith-based identity as they provide mental health services.


The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has developed a guide for faith-leaders, aimed at helping them to support life before, during, and after a suicidal crisis. This guide is a result of an interfaith suicide prevention dialogue, held between members of nine major religious groups in the United States. The National Action Alliance provides religious leaders with the opportunity to disseminate information about suicide prevention and encourage members of other religious groups. 

One National Action Alliance participant, Bishop William Young, shared that “many Black congregations are beginning to see that prayer alone may not be adequate to deal with issues prevalent in the African American experience and that mental health counseling is not just a need but a necessity.” To address this need, the Suicide and the Black Church conference, now in its ninth year, hosts workshops designed to “empower delegates to return to their places of worship and/or employment better able to identify those going through the dark night of the soul in need of emotional or mental health services.” This intentional training equips members of the black church to better support individuals who are impacted by suicide.

Conferences and events like the Suicide and the Black Church Conference can powerfully impact members of religious communities. However, when they receive government funding, FBOs should extend their services to all. The Sacred Sector Toolbox on Public Positioning in Government Partnerships says: 

It is essential for FBOs to stress the commitment it has to those it serves and how government funding has enabled the program to better help the community. The organization might have religious and conduct standards for its privately funded services, but should emphasize service to all in the government-funded programs. By extending its services to the general public, FBOs can promote acceptance of all individuals with mental health challenges.

The mental health crisis is an overwhelming problem that impacts up to one in five Americans, leading to devastating consequences for families and communities across the nation. FBOs provide vital spiritual care and personalized support to those suffering from mental illness. By partnering with the government, FBOs have the opportunity to increase their impact in the community, as the government is often able to provide resources and infrastructure that FBOs can’t provide on their own. Together this sacred-public partnership can help to effectively address mental health crises and contribute to flourishing communities. 

Nicole Kennedy is a Juris Doctor candidate at the University of California, Irvine, and has contributed to IRFA, Shared Justice, and Sacred Sector as a Legal Fellow.


1. Read the entire Sacred-Public Partnerships series.

2. Sign up for the Sacred Spotlight monthly newsletter to stay updated on this series and learn more about Sacred Sector’s learning communities. 

3. Sign up for the Shared Justice monthly email. Shared Justice, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, is an online publication written by and for Christian twenty-and thirty-somethings exploring the intersection of faith and politics.  

4. Know a seminarian or a faith-based organization? Connect them with Sacred Sector’s Fellowship and Community, designed to equip individuals and organizations to live out their faith-shaped callings. Email virginia.creasy@cpjustice.org for more information.