There are times when a person just can’t find the way through to provide assistance when someone is acting unusual or when a person is faced with a situation that is confusing and it is unclear what to offer. One of the arenas in which this may arise is when encountering or being confronted by a mental health challenge in someone who may be in your own family, a friend, or it may even happen when you are out and about. What does a person need to know? Similar to programs that suggest some guidelines for providing first aid for someone who is physically ailing, there is a program that is being offered throughout the country to teach first aid for a mental health challenge. It is called Mental Health First Aid and its goal is to “teach lay people methods of assisting someone who may be in the early stages of developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis.”
Throughout the country, following several traumatic shootings the conversation usually turns at some time to issues of mental illness. While we know that people who are living with a mental illness are 3 to 4 times more often victims of crime rather than being perpetrators, stigma around mental illness is alive. And stigma hurts. Everyone. In the Mental Health First Aid book we read, “Fighting the stigma and shame associated with mental illness is often more difficult than battling the illness itself. Ramifications of stigma include suffering in silence rather than seeking help; negative impact in seeking housing, employment, and relationships; and even internalizing negative attitudes about oneself. Stigma is a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.”
As a clergy, I believe that our faith communities can be centers where stigma can be reduced and eliminated. That includes intentional action to confront stigma toward people who are living with a mental illness and that usually comes after being aware of what mental illnesses are. There are cairns, landmarks, which can help us find our way when we are loosing our way.
I have learned about mental illness through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (Family to Family), through our church’s regular adult educational programs on mental health and accessibility, through the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness, and through my participation in the national United Church of Christ Mental Health Network. I have experienced the challenges and the strength that come with having a son who is bipolar whom I deeply love and who delights me with his active life and his quick wit. Still, because there continues to be stigma about mental illness as well as toward those who are struggling to live into recovery, we need to ever be alert to ways to offer support to our loved ones who struggle and anyone who is stigmatized. There are ways to discover our way even when it seems that there is no way.
When anyone who finds him or herself at that junction where stigma and shame lead to a dark place, where there seems to be no way out, there is another way that leads to light and life, a promise given by our faith. In the words of St. Paul, our trust in God, the God beyond God, the Holy source of love and grace, “provides the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
This promise I have trusted many times and I have become grateful for the endurance I have gained. To all those who are living with a mental illness and those who are affected by mental illness, I hope you may find the audacity to trust that there will be a way when it seems to be no way. For all those who carry the stigma around mental illness, I encourage you learn more and look deeply within yourself to find a compassionate connection with those who suffer.
Rev. Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson is a mental health advocate who served on the national United Church Board of Homeland Ministries, 1979-1995, retired as chaplain at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, and is a past chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.