Pastors and PTSD

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From time to time I write specifically about the impact of mental health issues on pastors and church leaders. I’ve recently returned to the subject again writing about depression here and here.  I wanted to follow up these articles by writing a little about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is described on the MIND website as follows:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem you may develop after experiencing traumatic events. The condition was first recognised in war veterans. It has had different names in the past, such as ‘shell shock’, but it’s not only diagnosed in soldiers. A wide range of traumatic experiences can be causes of PTSD.[1]

Symptoms include:

  • Re-experiencing the distress involved in traumatic events. This may include flashbacks, nightmares and bodily responses to flight or fight type scenarios.
  • Over alertness and feeling on edge
  • Struggling with belief and feelings including the ability to trust others.[2]

When I first wrote about depression and anxiety I observed that we are often inclined in church circles to describe a situation where a leader has a break down as “burn-out.” Whilst burnout through over work without proper rest is something that leaders may succumb to, it is my view that in fact what we are often seeing is some form of depression and/or anxiety. Indeed, what we may well be seeing are symptoms of PTSD.  The pastor’s anxiety is in fact that over alertness/bodily response to distress described above that then leads to an adrenalin surge followed by exhaustion which may be explained as either burnout our depression.

You see, church leaders are likely to have found themselves in significantly traumatic situations, perhaps indeed through repeat exposure. These might include situations where they witness the trauma of others either directly with their own eyes or indirectly when the trauma victim reports their experience in counselling. The pastor then becomes a vicarious participant in the trauma. This might include situations where church members have experienced:

  • Extreme suffering and/or persecution: for example when the church works with asylum seekers
  • Domestic abuse including physical/emotional and sexual abuse.
  • The trauma of a serious accident of illness.

Additionally the pastor may find themselves in a seriously traumatic situation such as:

  • A church split or incident of sheep stealing
  • False accusation
  • Divisive leadership meetings
  • Targeted abuse and bullying against them as a leader
  • Sudden and unexpected financial hardship.

A lot of pastors and leaders are likely to have found the COVID pandemic to have been particularly traumatic as well as the aftermath from it.

It is important then that we learn to recognise the potential causes and the signs of PTSD and how to distinguish them from other issues if we are going to help support pastors through testing times. We also need to remember that treatment in response to PTSD may not be the same as for other mental illnesses.

Finally, we need to remind ourselves and each other that even when something like PTSD makes the world feel frightening and confusing that however we feel, God has not deserted us or ceased to love us.


[2] Symptoms of PTSD | Mind, the mental health charity – help for mental health problems

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