PTSD: A 10-step guide for ministry professionals
Sydney Segen is a retired author and editor from Greentree Community Evangelical Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, Missouri, United States.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating mental illness that shatters minds, destroys lives, and shakes faith to the core. I know—because I have encountered it. I understand the anguish—because I have experienced it. I am aware of what it takes to get better—because I have endured it.
As a ministry professional, you are uniquely qualified to meet the spiritual needs of people with PTSD. This guide can help you recognize the condition and know how best to show God’s love in response, because it’s never too soon or too late to find hope
1. About PTSD
PTSD can develop in some people who have experienced a terrifying or life-threatening event. After the trauma, most return to normal life within a few weeks or months. But others continue to have nightmares, vivid flashbacks reliving the trauma, an inability to focus, and a feeling of constant fear. They find themselves in a terrifying new world, unsure whether they can survive.
2. Trauma’s role in PTSD
The sudden loss of a child, a school shooting, rape, sexual abuse, war, betrayal, a natural disaster, a deadly accident, or a deadly virus can leave those impacted hanging on to life by a thread. If such a reaction continues, the trauma often results in PTSD.
3. PTSD symptoms
Mental health practitioners diagnose PTSD by the presence and duration of 15-20 symptoms.1 Such symptoms fall into four categories: reexperiencing (such as nightmares and unwanted upsetting memories), avoidance of trauma-related thoughts or situations, negativity (such as overly negative thoughts, exaggerated blame, and decreased interest in activities), and hypervigilance (such as risky or destructive behavior, aggression, and difficulty concentrating).
You may encounter people who have a diagnosis of PTSD but keep it private. And many people suffer from the symptoms but have not been formally diagnosed. If you recognize the symptoms, you can be sure that the person needs your informed care.
4. Faith and PTSD
PTSD’s vicious symptoms can strip away a victim’s spiritual life. Why did God let this happen? they think. I don’t think He’s real. By modeling Christ’s love and acceptance, you can help PTSD sufferers find their way back to God.
5. Help for PTSD
In my personal journey, I remember saying, “Only other people who have PTSD understand what I’m going through.” Friends, though, who took time to learn about the condition aided me. The recommendations below offer ways you can help someone with PTSD.
Commit to care and support. People with PTSD must tell their story many, many times as they process it. That, unfortunately, can be exhausting to friends, family, and pastors. But if you can commit to supporting a PTSD victim through conversation, referrals for help, and ongoing prayer, you can make a world of difference. Someone does care about me, they can tell themselves. Maybe I’m not worthless after all.
Offer helpful resources. While PTSD is not 100 percent curable, its victims can minimize its effects through dedicated mental, emotional, and spiritual work—with the aid of professionals. While you, as a pastor, can assist with spiritual healing, your job is not to diagnose or treat the disorder. However, you can encourage those with PTSD to get counseling and ask psychiatrists about medication. When PTSD victims cannot afford treatment, perhaps you can aid with financial help from a benevolence fund or refer individuals to low-cost counseling services.
Be prepared to discuss God’s role in this tragedy. Many suffering from PTSD give up on whatever faith they had in the past. “How could God let this happen?” they wonder. “Where is He now?” You might explain that even when we suffer, God is with us. When the trauma struck, God was there. He stays with us through our journey toward healing, even if we can’t always feel His presence. People recovering from PTSD take a giant step when they realize that God wants them to turn to Him, hundreds of times a day if necessary, and to believe that He will bring good out of the situation.
Have patience with pain. Deep wounds, including abuse from childhood, take a long time to heal. The person you are helping will likely need months or even years to get control of PTSD. Please be patient and be prepared for tears. Author John Piper says, “Weep deeply over the life that you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain.”2 As the person heals, you will see fewer tears, hear the story less often, and begin to see signs of hope.
Offer specific types of spiritual encouragement and healing. As a minister, you can explain how God heals PTSD with:
- hope for future peace
- replacement of worries with prayer
- plans for good, not harm
- unconditional love
- power and strength to heal
6. Warning signs of suicide
People who go through trauma have often lost loved ones, jobs, marriages, homes, and/or their own self-worth. If PTSD follows the trauma, its sufferers can sink even deeper into despair. They may eventually decide that the world would be better off without them. So how is a pastor to know if a person is considering suicide? The American Association of Suicidology has created a mnemonic device for warning signs: IS PATH WARM?4
I Ideation (dwelling on the idea of suicide; formulating a plan for suicide)
S Substance abuse
M Mood changes
If you see such signs, be very direct and inquire, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Should the response be anything but a strong no, ask, “Do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?” When the answer is yes, tell them, “I care so much about you that I want you to be safe and seek the help you need. It’s time to get that support now.” If they will ride with you to a psychiatric hospital or other facilities, take them directly there. Do not leave them alone. Should they refuse help, call 911 or your city’s police emergency line and ask for aid anyway.
7. Gentle ministry
PTSD leaves deep wounds that call for an accepting, loving response from you. For example:
Ask. Gently ask PTSD sufferers how they feel about God or their faith, and listen without interruption or judgment. Your patience and care will help them work through the shock and begin to build their faith again. It might take quite a long time, so do not be discouraged by slow progress.
Listen. As mentioned, PTSD victims need to tell their stories repeatedly. Once is not enough for healing. Eventually, though, they will begin to relate their stories without crying. That is when you can celebrate all the long, hard work of recovery.
Notice. Do some research and be aware of the symptoms of PTSD. When you suspect PTSD, carefully inquire, “How long have you felt this way?” Ask, “What happened to you in the past?”
Wait. With PTSD, you may have to avoid traditional ways of ministering at first. If someone has lost faith and is furious with God, Bible verses and Christian platitudes (e.g., “God’s got this”) can just make things worse. Jesus addressed people’s physical and emotional pain right along with their spiritual emptiness. So first develop a caring relationship with those shattered by PTSD. Soon they will be ready for the verses and insights you want to share.
8. Protecting your own mental health
People with PTSD can demand hours of your time and drain you emotionally. You will need to set healthy boundaries and assemble a PTSD team to help. But you do not need a complicated training program: Use this article as a first step. Then encourage trainees to find out more about PTSD.
9. Prayer and hope
You may be the only professional who can offer the sufferer consistent, heartfelt prayer in your conversations, with their loved ones, when you are alone, and possibly in a confidential group. Your prayers call on God’s strength to take control of a victim’s PTSD—a huge step toward healing.
10. The victory
In closing, you might be wondering if all this work is worth it. It was definitely the case for PTSD “victor” Elise Andrews. “Always have something to hope for, and have faith because you will overcome,” she says. “I did.” You and other ministry professionals have direct heavenly connections that can bring peace to people with PTSD.
- "PTSD Basics," PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/what/ptsd_basics.asp.
- John Piper, “Embrace the Life God Has Given You,” Desiring God, March 10, 2017, https://www.desiringgod.org/embrace-the-life-god-has-given-you.
- Sydney Segen, Hope After Trauma and PTSD: Making Sense of the Pain (St. Louis, MO: Sydney Segen, 2018), 176.
- Cheryl Dennison, “Suicide Prevention in Genesee County,” MyCity Magazine, June 27, 2018, http://www.mycitymag.com/suicide-prevention-in-genesee-county/. See also American Association of Suicidology, http://www.suicidology.org/resources/warning-signs.