Winter depression? The church can help.

VANCOUVER, BC—Winter can be a particularly hard time of the year for people suffering from mood disorders, says Sharon Smith of Sanctuary Ministries. However, the Church can play a vital role in helping them through.

Smith is trained and experienced in both theology and mental health rehabilitation. As executive director of Sanctuary Ministries, she helps churches become places of care and support for people on a mental health recovery journey.

"When somebody is living with severe mental illness and are in recovery, often they have lost a lot of social connections," Smith says. "Winter coincides with several holidays, which are generally a challenging time for people who've had some kind of trauma in their life."

Lack of natural sunlight, social withdrawal and a lack of exercise also worsen existing mood disorders. Inclement weather creates added barriers to getting out of the house and interacting with people.

"Take depression as an example," she says. "One of the major symptoms of depression is social withdrawal. So you get into a place of being disconnected from people. But it's not a helpful thing, because you don't have the reminders to keep going. You don't have reasons to get up in the morning, or things to distract you from negative thinking and suicidal thoughts."

The Church, she adds, has a role to play in helping provide healthy social and spiritual community. Sanctuary works with churches in the Vancouver area to teach them about how "mental illness and faith come together." They also support churches while they develop appropriate initiatives in their own congregations, such as a family support group or helping people find a "spiritual friend" to walk alongside them in their recovery process.

Smith also helps those from a Christian worldview understand "the psychological and biological side of mental illness while still respecting the spiritual component." Addressing mental health problems involves the whole person, including factors like genetic makeup, how an he or she was raised, environment, personality and spiritual wellbeing, Smith explains, comparing the various components to pieces of a puzzle.

While it's a mistake to believe that a church plays no role in someone's mental health journey, it's also a mistake to go to the opposite extreme and believe the entirety of someone's healing process falls on their church's shoulders.

"It is matter of how we all work together," Smith says, "which is why one of the pieces we advocate is connecting churches with the mental health professionals and facilities in their area.

"It is important for the pastor and church community to know that they are not alone in this. We want them to understand how they are a part of the puzzle and learn how to tap into the other resources who can help."

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