As we approach the New Year within a month, sometimes it is good to look back before going ahead. I never thought I would be offering an adult forum on my experience with mental illness in my family and have my son speak from his point of view as a person who lives with bipolar disorder. When our church started the Mental Health Ministry Team almost 9 years ago, I was pretty naïve. I knew there was stigma around mental health challenges even as it has taken my son and me to speak publicly together about how mental illness has affected us. It has taken 26 years for that to happen.
In the program, Mental Health First Aid, there is this striking sentence in their resource book. “Stigma may affect access to care and quality of care, and, perhaps worst of all, may result in the person internalizing negative attitudes about himself or herself. Stigma is not only a barrier to recovery; it is the single biggest barrier to recovery. Fighting the stigma and shame association with mental illness is often more difficult than battling the illness itself.”
I believe some congregations are seeking to break down the stigma on mental illness through adult education programs, Mental Health Sundays, and offering the Spiritual Support Group for Mental Health and Wellness. Our congregation sponsors the two annual local Interfaith Network on Mental Illness programs and we engage with the national UCC Mental Health Network. The UCC MHN continues to encourage congregations to become WISE (Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, Engaged) for Mental Health.
When the environment feels safe enough, we can tell our stories, especially when a congregation has lived into offering that welcoming and affirming welcome. Even as my son and I have now spoken publicly together about our perspective as a son living with bipolar and as the father of this son, I know that there are still many congregations where this is still not happening. A clergy wrote this: “Many people resist turning to their faith communities with the truth of themselves, for fear that understanding and support will not be forthcoming.” Barbara Crafton, Jesus Wept.
Recently I was invited to speak at a local UCC church. Their hope was that I could encourage them to make the congregation safe enough for people to be able to share how mental illness has affected them, both those who have the lived experience as well as their loved ones. Right in that meeting, one couple confronted each other. One saying to the other, “You always make me inadequate when I tell you that I am having a real hard time with my mental illness. I am trying as much as I can, and you always seem to judge me.” It was a difficult conversation to which to listen. It was a hard truth telling. Yet, truth was named and the other spouse might not have heard it if we had not created at least a semi-safe environment where we could say what it is like for us. I pray that our congregations can offer both understanding and support. This congregation is beginning its mental health ministry. It is not a one time meeting. It needs persistent attention to support those who will courageously speak out about how they are affected by mental health conditions. This congregation is beginning its process to become WISE about mental health.
Looking back, over the last year, I do see that we have come a long way, but the cliché is also true, we have so far to go. I see the deep growth of understanding and the ready support to those who are affected by mental health challenges. I see the raw emotions that have yet to be spoken out loud and to be heard and healed. I hope in the new year that all of us can enrich this ministry for mental health. I hope that you, in whatever way is appropriate for you, will speak and act in ways that focus on overcoming the stigma, providing education, and offer welcome and inclusion.
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 serves as chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.