Connecting with the Community: Stepping Outside the Church to Grow Your Ministry

Elle's Castle sign-inEditor’s Note: Today’s post is from Beth Golik, Special Needs Ministry Director at Bay Presbyterian Church. It was inspired by a story Beth shared three weeks ago in our church’s bulletin. Here’s Beth… 

As churches, we look for ways to extend beyond the walls of our physical buildings and existing congregations to expand the kingdom.

Partnering with community organizations opens up avenues for our churches to connect with families impacted by special needs. When your ministry shows up in the secular world, it demonstrates to families that your church is a place where they are welcome and loved.

Golik post 2Recently, our church was the first host site for a Guinness World Record attempt for creating the world’s largest fingerprint painting aimed at raising awareness for playgrounds that are accessible for everyone, including those with disabilities.

Although the event promoted Elle’s Enchanted Forest ~ A  Playground for Everyone, it provided our special needs ministry with visibility well beyond the typical displays that Sunday morning worshipers see. The event was seen not just by our congregation, but by hundreds more outside the walls of our church through social media. Each fingerprint represents a potential connection being made to our ministry.

Golik 3Twice a year, our ministry takes part at public events designed for families with children with special needs (and children who struggle but have not been formally diagnosed) to learn about local resources, therapies and after-school programs. At a recent event, we were the only church represented out of 60 public and private organizations. Being there allowed us to reach another layer of the community: parents who had given up on the opportunity to attend worship together and grow in their faith.

Golik 4Inviting the public in is another way to connect with families and show them the love of Christ. At Bay Pres, we hold Respite Events, which offer a night of fun for children with special needs and their siblings while their parents enjoy a much-needed break for the evening. We average 60 guests and 150 volunteers during the two and a half hour event. While we are blessed to have a large facility and large volunteer base, smaller scale events are just as meaningful for participants. Our Respite Events allow us to minister to families beyond those we serve on Sunday mornings. However, through these events we often gain at least one new student and/or volunteer for our Sunday morning programs.

13239939_945957832188326_6827497849235245252_nIt doesn’t matter what size your church is; there are ways for you to connect with the community and to make families feel welcomed. If you’re just starting out, get to know people by taking a team of church volunteers to a community event. If your church already has a special needs ministry, offer your building as a venue for an event that supports the community. Keep a presence in the community and talk with your pastors about ways that a special needs ministry enhances the church and acts to connect people into the family of faith.


shutterstock_24510829Key Ministry is pleased to make available our FREE disability ministry consultation service to pastors, church leaders and ministry volunteers. Got questions about launching a ministry that you can’t answer…here we are! Have a kid you’re struggling to serve? Contact us! Want to kick around a problem with someone who’s “been there and done that?” Click here to submit a request!

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Updated…What do we know about gender non-conforming kids?

shutterstock_383471308What would you do if a family came to your church with a child identified by their parents as “transgender?”  What would the response be to parents who want their child to use the restroom corresponding to their’s child’s perceived gender identity or to participate in ministry activities based upon gender identity as opposed to the child’s anatomical sex? How would your student ministry respond to a gender-discordant teen undergoing hormonal therapy to prevent the onset of puberty or seeking to change their appearance to reflect their gender identity?

Leelah AlcornI bet it’s safe to say these are issues few leaders or volunteers serving in children’s ministry or student ministry ever contemplated prior to assuming their current roles. But in the aftermath of the discussion surrounding the media coverage of the physical transformation of the 1976 Olympic Decathlon champion into Caitlyn Jenner, and today’s announcement by the Departments of Justice and Education that schools that refuse to allow students to use the restroom or locker room consistent with their gender as opposed to biological sex, the topic is now squarely front and center. In December of 2014, the highly-publicized suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a Cincinnati-area teen (pictured right) from a church-involved family has led to a national debate about treatment offered to teens with gender dysphoria.

Perhaps the most contentious topic of debate within both the medical community and the broader culture involves the trend on the part of some parents with the support of professionals to recognize younger and younger children as transgendered. Here’s a report from Kate Snow of NBC News telling the story of a family that made a decision to identify their preschool-age biological daughter (Mia) as a transgender boy (Jacob).

How do we make sense of the topics of gender non-conforminty and gender discordance in kids and what do we say to parents coming to us seeking advice?

Gender nonconformity (defined as variations in norms in gender role behavior such as toy preferences, rough and tumble play, aggression and playmate gender) is quite common among young children. The majority of children at some point in time exhibit some interest in toy, play and peer preferences more typical of the opposite gender. Gender discordance refers to discrepancy between an individual’s biological sex and their gender identity…their personal sense of self as male or female.

For the vast majority of kids who exhibit gender non-conformity (88%-98%), discomfort with the biological sex resolves during childhood as they develop the capacity for more flexible thinking and recognize that one can still be a boy or a girl despite some gender-nonconforming interests. A much smaller percentage of kids reach adolescence with persistent discomfort with their biological sex. They might follow several distinct developmental trajectories.

Editorial Credit: Glynnis Jones /

Editorial Credit: Glynnis Jones /

Among boys who reach adolescence with gender discordance, research suggests the majority (75-80%) demonstrate a homosexual/bisexual orientation by age 19. A second path is characterized by heterosexual orientation and a third, smaller group (2-12%) will continue to experience gender dysphoria into adolescence, and ultimately, adulthood. In one small follow-up study (N=25) of school age girls diagnosed with gender identity disorder, 24% were classified as lesbian/bisexual in behavior and 32% in fantasy as adults, with the remainder classified as heterosexual or asexual. 12% continued to experience gender dysphoria as adults. In another sample, gender dysphoria resolved by late adolescence or early adulthood for the majority of boys and girls referred for gender dysphoria during childhood. Of the subjects for whom gender dysphoria resolved, all of the girls and half of the boys reported a heterosexual orientation, while nearly all subjects of both sexes for whom gender dysphoria persisted developed a homosexual or bisexual orientation.

Last year, we looked at data describing mental and physical health concerns among adults with gender dysphoria prior to and following medical and/or surgical treatment. Despite data suggesting the majority of persons with gender dysphoria treated medically and/or surgically are satisfied with the results, an extraordinarily large percentage continue to struggle with mental illness. Rates of suicide attempts following treatment ranged between 43-45% in one long-term follow-up study from Sweden, and persons who underwent surgery were four times more likely than the general population to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital and nineteen times more likely to attempt suicide than their same-age peers without gender dysphoria. I can’t imagine any parent who would want their child to experience persistent gender dysphoria in light of what we know about the long-term mental health outcomes.

What do we know about teens with persistent gender dysphoria?

  • They are more likely to experience depression. One study reported that 23.5% of a large sample of transgender women experienced depression during adolescence. Bullying and trauma may contribute to roughly 50% of the increased risk, according to this study.
  • A sample of 180 patients (ages 12-29) from a community health center reported that transgender youth had a twofold to threefold increased risk of depression, anxiety disorder, suicidal ideation, suicide attempt, self-harm without lethal intent, and both inpatient and outpatient mental health treatment compared with cisgender-matched controls. No statistically significant differences in mental health outcomes were observed comparing FTM and MTF patients, adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, and hormone use
  • They are more likely to have been victims of physical, psychological or sexual abuse, and more likely to have PTSD.
  • shutterstock_380461300The limited data available suggests markedly elevated rates of suicide among transgender youth. In this sample, 47% of transgender adults attempted suicide prior to the age of 25. In a smaller sample of transgender youth (ages 15-21, N=66), 45% seriously considered suicide and 26% had engaged in life-threatening behavior.
  • Higher than expected rates of autism spectrum disorders have been reported among children and teens with gender dysphoria. In this clinical sample, nearly 8% of kids with gender dysphoria met diagnostic criteria for autism. In addition to autism, higher rates of schizophrenia have been observed in clinically-referred samples of patients with gender dysphoria, and increased obsessional interests are seen among clinically-referred boys.

The question of what to do with children and teens with gender dysphoria in the face of insufficient data is the hot-button topic that their parents and the professionals who treat them are wrestling with. Here’s a study published last year describing some of the ethical issues the professional community is wrestling with…

(1) The absence of an explanatory model for gender dysphoria

(2) The nature of gender dysphoria… is it a normal variation in development, a social construct or mental illness?

(3) What role does physiological change during puberty play in the development of gender identity?

(4) The role of comorbid medical and mental health conditions

(5) What are the range of possible physical or psychological effects associated with pursuing (or choosing not to pursue) early medical interventions?

(6) At what age is a child/teen competent to consent to hormonal/surgical treatments and what rights should parents have to consent to treatment before kids are capable of making such decisions?

(7) The role of social context in how gender dysphoria is perceived.

To summarize, we know that most kids with gender dysphoria become comfortable with their biological sex as they progress through childhood. For those who continue to experience significant gender discordance as adolescents, far too many will have experienced trauma, mental illness, social isolation, self-injury and suicidal thoughts.


shutterstock_24510829Key Ministry is pleased to make available our FREE disability ministry consultation service to pastors, church leaders and ministry volunteers. Got questions about launching a ministry that you can’t answer…here we are! Have a kid you’re struggling to serve? Contact us! Want to kick around a problem with someone who’s “been there and done that?” Click here to submit a request!

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What some pastors believe about mental illness…

shutterstock_149814353Key Ministry has a critical role to play in educating pastors and church staff members about the possible causes and treatments for mental health disorders common among children and youth.

There’s a moderate amount of research looking at the attitudes of church members toward mental health issues, largely focused on the issue of where they go to find help in a crisis or how they gain access to mental health services. We know that many people seek help first from clergy for mental health problems, presumably because there’s less stigma or cost involved in seeking help from a pastor, trying to connect with the right person in the mental health system is often a bewildering process and because of the fear that secular mental health professionals will fail to grasp or minimize the spiritual component of the person’s presenting problems. What’s woefully missing from the research literature is an examination of the extent to which attitudes about mental disorders among leaders in the church becomes an impediment to church attendance and participation for families in which a parent or child experiences a significant mental illness.

shutterstock_397197004I came across an interesting paper published by Jennifer Payne in Community Mental Health Journal examining variations in pastor’s perceptions about the causes of depression categorized by the pastor’s race and denominational affiliation. Among the significant findings:

  • African-American pastors were more likely to endorse the view that depression is hopelessness that happens when one does not trust God, and less likely to endorse the conceptualization of depression as a biological mood disorder.
  • Pentecostal pastors, compared to pastors from mainline, conservative protestant and non-denominational churches, were more likely to endorse the view that depression is due to a moral problem in one’s life, and less likely to see depression as being due to a medical or biological condition.
  • Pentecostal and non-denominational pastors were more likely to view depression as being caused by a lack of faith in God.

I would think that churches inclined to view depression or other mental disorders as conditions associated with a lack of faith in God would be most committed to efforts to reach and build relationships with persons suffering from these conditions. After all, to fail to do so would be analogous to building a hospital and subsequently deciding to do as little as possible to let sick people know that the hospital was open.

Where I’m hoping Key Ministry can help is by providing churches with the training, education and resources to minister to families of kids with mental health disorders with skill, sensitivity and thoughtfulness that exemplifies the love of Christ.


shutterstock_291556127Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we’ve developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families to better understand the nature of trauma in children and teens, Jolene Philo’s series on PTSD in children, and series on other mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.

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6 tips on how to help a friend with depression…Gillian Marchenko

Beth friend

People ask me what they can do to help a depressed friend or loved one. It’s a tricky question, and one that I can’t claim a definitive, solid answer for every single person battling depression. All I can do is answer from my perspective. And please note, my perspective regarding friendship may be different tomorrow. That’s one of the things about mental illness. Like I wrote in my new book Still Life, A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression, “I am information that changes daily.”  -Page 117

  1. Avoid Christian platitudes.

People flippantly recite verses or say things like ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” This isn’t helpful. The words aren’t true encouragement but often times a spiritual band aid when someone doesn’t know what to say or doesn’t really want to get involved.

There are people who truly want to encourage through scripture and friendship. But the difference is motivation. I have a friend who left a container of verses on my doorstep that now sits on my desk. When I need to hear from God but can’t manage to open the Bible, I pull out a verse and read it. I know my friend’s heart with this gift. She wants me to know I am not alone and gently points me to Christ.

  1. Affirm the illness.

Don’t judge or assume that if your friend can’t ‘pull her life together’ then she just isn’t trying hard enough. Depression isn’t laziness or a lack of faith. It is a disease that requires treatment and care. if you don’t believe it, get educated. There are various sites online that offer up-to-date, factual information about mental illness.

  1. Don’t continually offer advice.

Several people have suggested that more time outside might help, or that I should try a certain homeopathic remedy, and to make sure I am getting enough exercise. Again, I believe that many of these suggestions come from places of love. But if a person has been battling a serious illness, you can be certain that she has heard about and probably attempted many of these suggestions. She may even have already added one or more to her personal treatment plan. Either way, you are not an expert. If you had a friend with cancer, you would not tell them what they should or shouldn’t do to heal.

  1. Reach out.

shutterstock_418456003Depression is a lonely, isolating illness. I don’t have the mental, emotional, and physical capacity to spend time with people in and just after a depressive episode. If you have a friend who rejects your invitations to meet in person, there are other creative ways to show you care. Mail a card. Drop off a meal. Take the kids for an afternoon. Reach out via text, simply letting them know you are thinking about them and that there is no need to respond. Here’s a warning: don’t reach out too often because that may add more stress and get in a person’s life..

  1. Challenge when appropriate.

I don’t think a friend, depending on how close she is, should always stay away and follow the lead of the person with depression. Of course, this subject is delicate and nuanced. It absolutely depends on the relationship and the seriousness of the depressive episode. But for a lot of us, our normal becomes ‘don’t say yes,’ ‘don’t do things,’ ‘be careful.’ These thoughts become defense mechanisms to self protect or attempts at laying low to stave off another episode. But as a friend, it can be healthy to say, ‘you seem to be doing better lately, let’s meet for coffee,’ or ‘I think you should attend that meeting unless you absolutely cannot.’ If she agrees to an outing but is unsure about it, offer to take responsibility for conversation and let them know that silence is fine. An allotted time is helpful as well. Go for an hour and see what happens.

  1. Initiate help for self harm.

If your friend talks about self harm or suicide, let someone know. Call a close family member, their physician, go to the nearest emergency room, or even contact a suicide hotline. Once a person starts speaking about suicide, especially about any type of plan, it is appropriate and crucial to step in and step on toes to get help.


Still LifeFor Gillian Marchenko, “dealing with depression” means learning to accept and treat it as a physical illness. In Still Life she describes her journey through various therapies and medications to find a way to live with depression. She faces down the guilt of a wife and mother of four, two with special needs. How can she care for her family when she can’t even get out of bed? Her story is real and raw, not one of quick fixes. But hope remains as she discovers that living with depression is still life.

Still Life is available here in paperback and e-book from IVP Press. The Kindle edition is available at Amazon.

Posted in Depression, Gillian Marchenko, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Resources, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mother’s Day…It’s complicated

she wept

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest author is Kara Dedert. Kara is one of our writers for Not Alone, our blog for parents of kids with special needs. Here’s Kara…

I sat in the folding chair at my kid’s school today, grinning at my son and daughter up on the stage. It was the annual Mother’s Day program and my heart overflowed watching them—my son staring at me unwaveringly and my daughter sneaking shy glances my way.

Next to me my other son, Calvin, sat in his wheelchair, listening to the kid’s voices fill the gym. He grinned his signature side-smile at the songs and tried to join in, vocalizing over his trach.

I felt so much joy and sorrow in one moment; joy in what is and sorrow at what’s been lost. How can a simple holiday feel so complicated?

I reached over and held his hand, letting him know I was there. And then I looked up and locked eyes with my kids on the stage, gave a big thumbs up, and let them know too, I’m here—I’m always here for you.


That’s what we do as mothers, we carry on bravely, even when our hearts feel like they might break.

We smile and tell our kids that everything will be okay, even when our world feels upside down.

We reach over and hug our child, letting them feel joy and love and save our tears for the shower.


We learn to delight in what is and let go of what illness and disability has robbed us and our kids.

We’ve learned behavioral interventions, tracheotomy care, g-tube care and have become therapists in our own right.

We stay up countless nights comforting our child through seizures, illnesses, and hospital stays.


We’ve persevered even when we wanted to run the other way. 

We’ve discovered value and beauty that takes our breath away, while the world passes by.

We’ve wrestled with God in dark places and experienced grace that’s changed us.

We’ve grown through things we never thought we’d survive.

We’ve been stretched to the point we’re afraid we’ll break.

We’ve seen joy come in the morning after sorrow’s long night.


We hurt deeply. 

We love deeply. 


Mother’s Day; it reminds me just how complicated, lovely and rich my life is.



Kara1Kara Dedert and her husband Darryl have been blessed with four kids — Sophie, Noah, Evelyn, and Calvin. Kara and Darryl had anticipated a life overseas but after five years as missionaries in Cambodia they had a son, Calvin, born with a neuronal migration disorder and severe brain malformations. Their lives have changed drastically but God continues to display His faithfulness and grace. Kara blogs at En Route.

Posted in Intellectual Disabilities, Key Ministry, Parents, Special Needs Ministry, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Motherhood and depression guilt…

Polly and mom hug

Gillian Marchenko shares an early Mother’s Day post.

For some moms with mental illness, Mother’s Day is nuanced and painful. We are thankful for our children and yet tend to think about our failures as opposed to successes.  We worry about what our illnesses do to our kids. Are we robbing them from the life they deserve? Wouldn’t they be better off with someone else?

In Still Life, a Memoir of Living Fully with Depression, motherhood (I have four kids) is a huge topic I return to often.

Can I be a loving mother and struggle with depression? Exactly how does one do that?

Here are some excerpts from my book exploring these question and hopefully showing how God is working in my life regarding my life, albeit at times screwed up, as a mother.

Excerpts from Still Life, A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression…

. . .


 I’m down under a mud puddle somewhere in a dream. I hear a muffled voice.

“Mom? It’s time for dinner. Mommy?”

I roll onto my back and squint my eyes up at Zoya, daughter number two, the easiest baby for me, the one who still crawls up in my lap and rests her head on my breast like she’d nurse if she could.

“Hi.” My voice has a smoker’s grittiness.

This is where it gets tricky. I don’t want to scare my kids. On days I can, I help get them off to school, then do a little work and perhaps a load of laundry. I go back to bed for a while and then get up again right before they return. But sometimes it’s like this: I don’t function. My middle daughter stands expectantly. I glob together blips of energy hiding in my body. My mind gathers them up like worn-out pieces of leftover pie crust that won’t stay together, even with a little flour and spit.

“Hi, honey. How was school?”

shutterstock_363884921“Okay.” Zoya’s voice is small, distant. I see fear in her eyes, and work to remember whether I’ve taken a shower today, or yesterday, or whether I will perhaps take one tomorrow. “Um, Papa says it’s time for dinner. Can you come down and eat with us?” My daughter’s face is creamy, smooth white velvet. (I catch her once in a while, when I’m better, in her bed. “Whatcha doin’?” “Nothing, just resting,” she says. “Okay,” I reply, and walk down our light yellow hallway. I wonder if she’s sad. Would she tell me? In a lot of ways Zoya is the kid most similar to me out of the four: natural athletic ability but not a lot of follow-through, a somewhat round shape, prone to watching long television programs and spending time alone. I worry she’ll have whatever wacked gene I seemed to have inherited that makes life bad and hard sometimes for no reason. I hope to God it isn’t so.)

“I’m not coming down for dinner tonight, honey. I’m still not great, Zoya.”

“Okay. Do you want us to bring you up a plate?” she asks.

“Maybe a little later.”

Depression is not a lazy susan. Depression is a savage. It sucks my life down its gullet; I slide like a sip of bourbon. I’m worthless. A waste. I’m no longer a wife, a mother or even a Christian. I am depressed. Here. Now. People say you can choose happy. Okay, I choose it every day. But it doesn’t choose me. I see Zoya’s face in my mind and remember her as an infant, jet-black hair sticking straight up all over her head. Hair everywhere on her body. A dark patch in the middle of her back, a landing strip for a tiny toy airplane. I think of her laughing over a silly comment her father or a sibling has made. She bends her head back, opens her mouth and lets go. I think of her cuddled up in her bed: “Goodnight, Mommy, see you in the morning.” When she was a toddler I tucked her in for a nap every afternoon, and it felt like Communion, her soft face and gorgeous eyes smiling into mine. Do I still count as a mother like this? I wanted to be a good mom to my kids, and now look at me. I’m not a mom at all. I’m sinking. I don’t want to sink. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Jesus, help. Help me. I can’t do it anymore. I ache. I need help. Zoya bends toward me and wraps her arms around the bulk of my body hidden under the covers. Her embrace stops the ache for a second. People petrify me, but I badly want to have someone near me. A tear slides down my cheek— I wipe it away before she can see it.

“I love you, Mom.”

“I love you, too, Zoya.”

She leaves my bedroom, and I wriggle around on the mattress to find a way to ease the pain. The door closes.

Still Life, Chapter 7, pages 55-57

. . .

shutterstock_389030122What will my children remember about me when they are grown? I lie in bed at night and wonder. My bones chill, and I find myself rubbing my feet together, attempting to breathe a little warmth into my sobering thoughts. Will they remember their mother swinging them at the park? Will they remember their mother praying with them before bed, or setting the table while Papa puts the finishing touches on dinner, or cheering for them at a school assembly? Or will they remember a closed door? Don’t bother Mom, she’s not well. Keep it down now, girls, Mom is having a hard day. Will they remember phone calls unanswered, unkempt playdates, Mom’s inability to get it together enough to sign them up for gymnastics and swimming? What will they remember? The thought is a plague. Moments make up our lives, right? If that’s true, then I’d best remember that good moments exist, too. But there are lessons in remembering the bad. Because good moments aren’t as good if their worth isn’t realized. Because a good life could go unnoticed if nothing opposed it. Good moments wouldn’t mean as much without the bad. Remember that, Gillian. Name the good and bad moments, and thank God for them. 

Still Life, Chapter 18, Page 141

. . .

Do you still think you are a bad mom?” (My therapist) Melanie asks. “I don’t know how to answer that. Yes? Maybe not as often? No?” “Gillian, think about it. Even when you were in bed for days, were your children cared for?” “Yes. But not by me.” “Okay, But were they fed? Did you know who cared for them? Did you leave them? Did you hurt yourself and leave them without a mother?” Melanie pushes, and the sore that I’ve been trying to leave alone so it can scab opens again. I adjust the way I sit on the couch in her office, glance down at my tall black boots, the ones I ordered online to fit my wide calves, and look back up at her. “The girls were cared for . . . I know who cared for them . . . I didn’t leave them.”

 “That’s right. And there are lots of women who don’t do those things. There are lots of women who leave. You are not a bad mother. Have you been a sick mom? Yes. But a bad mom? No.” “Yes, but I still ignore them. I still go up to my room when I can. I still struggle.” “So what? Who doesn’t struggle? You have four kids, and two of them have significant special needs. Of course you struggle. I watch my nephew for a weekend as a favor and I struggle. You aren’t a bad mom. You are a normal mom. Yes, you might still go to bed sometimes, but you get up, Gillian. You get back up.”  

Still Life, Chapter 20, Page 151

. . .

I may not be the best mom. I may not even get back to being the average mother I once claimed to be. But I’m here. I’m getting back up. I’m not leaving. And I’m the mom God ordained for these four souls, and therefore I am their best mom.

Still Life, Chapter 20, Page 155

. . .

Mother’s Day happens. I challenge you and myself to remember the good moments with our kids and to build on that in the midst of our illnesses. Remember, we are the moms God chose for our kids.

Happy Mother’s Day wherever you find yourself on your journey today.


Still LifeFor Gillian Marchenko, “dealing with depression” means learning to accept and treat it as a physical illness. In Still Life she describes her journey through various therapies and medications to find a way to live with depression. She faces down the guilt of a wife and mother of four, two with special needs. How can she care for her family when she can’t even get out of bed? Her story is real and raw, not one of quick fixes. But hope remains as she discovers that living with depression is still life.

Still Life is available here in paperback and e-book from IVP Press. The Kindle edition is available at Amazon.

Posted in Depression, Families, Gillian Marchenko, Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Stories | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

6 ways to love a family dealing with children’s mental health issues


Editor’s note: Today, we present Shannon’s blog for Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week

It’s Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. It seems fitting, then, to use my post this week to share what I’ve learned as a mom walking this path and friend to many other parents on similar journeys. Two of our children see mental health professionals regularly for therapy. I expect more will in the future. And many other kids I love are also being treated, some outpatient like mine and others in inpatient settings.

Usually we parents don’t write posts like these. Sometimes our silence comes from a desire to protect our children’s stories (and I’m not sharing many details for that reason). Often, though, our own shame is driving. And? Sometimes well-meaning friends reinforce that with judgment.

So how can you love families dealing with their children’s mental health issues?

  1. Recognize this as a HEALTH issue.

shutterstock_275404196Mental illness is real. Brain scans show differences neurologically between those with and without diagnoses like ADHD, childhood trauma, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, to name a few. Research backs therapeutic and pharmaceutical supports as effective treatment options. This isn’t about emotions. This is about a physical injury or difference, except the brain is affected instead of the lungs or kidneys. How would you reply if I shared a diagnosis of diabetes or cancer? Push through your discomfort with mental illness, and respond to us in that spirit.

  1. Hold back on your views about psychiatric meds.

The internet gives us all plenty of opportunity to voice our opinions. I know you have thoughts. I do too. I also know I’ve been guilty of spewing my thoughts without considering who might be reading them. You probably have too.

But when you share articles that call our kids’ diagnoses bogus or rant about how overmedicated youth are nowadays or argue that children need more recess not therapy, we hear you. We see your words. And they sting. Because even if there’s a grain of validity there, your words feel like personal judgment. We may mentally cross your name off our list of safe people. If you’re a ministry leader or pastor, we might also cross church off our list of safe places.

  1. Remind us that we’re good parents.

Good parents seek help for their kids when it’s needed. That’s what we’re doing. One former confidant wounded me in a heated moment, snapping that I had no right to offer guidance about motherhood since I have two kids in therapy. Ouch. I’m secure in our course of care for our kids, and that still felt like a gut punch. So, please, affirm our parenting. We need your kindness to drown out the voices questioning us. (And? Sometimes our own inner voice can be our harshest critic, even if no one else is passing judgment.)

  1. Ask about specific practical needs we might have.

When parents are overwhelmed and feeling like they’re failing at the whole “train up your child in the way he should go” thing, we can’t usually handle open-ended questions. “What can I do to help?” Yeah, we’ve got nothing.

Here are some better questions: Can I bring you dinner? Could I pick up a load of laundry and return it washed and folded tomorrow? Can I pick up one of your other children for a playdate?

Or just offer help directly: I hear that inpatient care isn’t always covered by insurance; here’s some money we’d like to offer as a gift. (This could be a personal donation or an extension of your church’s benevolence program for helping families in need.) Here’s Starbucks. I’m ordering pizza for dinner for y’all one night this week, so let me know the night and your favorite toppings.

  1. Believe us.

shutterstock_314664914Most of the world sees our kids at their best. Usually, we help with that image. Rather than dishonoring our kids by sharing stories of them at their worst, we offer filtered stories and edited pictures. We might use #keepingitreal but few of us post our realest real, for good reason.

(Side note to other parents: Please, if you are sharing your kids’ worst moments online, stop. Consider the biblical concept of doing to others as you’d have them do unto you. I wouldn’t want my biggest meltdowns broadcast on social media, would you? Pause before posting. Then if you need to share, go ahead and do so privately with a trusted friend. Public posts – or even “friends only” ones – don’t preserve your child’s dignity.)

Unless we have come to you for a professional opinion, don’t try to offer a diagnosis or discredit one we already have. Believe us. Believe that we know our kids better than you do. Believe that what we’re saying is true and real. Believe that love and belonging are better gifts to offer than skepticism or critiques.

  1. Remember us.

If we’ve told you that we’re seeking help for our child’s mental health, we’re saying we trust you. You’re our people. So, please, remember us. Keep texting and showing up and caring and offering your presence and holding space for us, even if we suck at reciprocating friendship right now.

After all, God created our bodies and our minds. Mental health issues don’t catch him by surprise. As his people, let’s not act surprised when they show up in our lives or churches either.

Have you walked this path? If so, we’d love it if you could leave a comment with what helped or didn’t help you from friends or your church. We can all learn from each other here.

Shannon Dingle serves as a Key Ministry church consultant. Shannon, her husband Lee and their six children live in Raleigh, NC.


shutterstock_291556127Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we’ve developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families to better understand the nature of trauma in children and teens, Jolene Philo’s series on PTSD in children, and series on other mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.

Posted in Advocacy, Families, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Shannon Dingle | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments