Guest commentary by Kathy Dale McNair
Good mental health is important.
But what does faith have to do with it?
All of us go through life experiences that challenge our mental health. But mental illnesses are more serious than the common ups and downs that most of us experience. Anxiety is the number one mental illness in America. Depression is second.
With mental illness, the desire to be part of a faith community, to worship, to participate in outreach activities and even the desire to pray can fall away. Most people with a mental illness isolate and withdraw from normal activities. They feel hopeless and helpless, weighed down and shut down by the stigma attached to mental illness.
Mental illnesses are disorders of the brain, affecting behavior and mood. Although behavior and mood disorders are the identifying markers, mental illness is felt in the whole body.
Mental illness is an illness just like cancer. Just as there are many kinds of cancer, there are many different kinds of mental illness.
Mental illness can creep up on us. Unrelieved grief can leave a person depressed and hopeless. Unrelieved stress that goes on for months can turn into despair or an anxiety disorder.
If you have not experienced a mental health condition, no doubt you know someone who has. One out of five people has a diagnosable mental health condition in the U.S. More than half of those people go without any treatment.
This means every congregation in America has people who are living with a mental health condition. And family members suffer along with their loved one when there seems to be no formula that works. Mental illness is an invisible epidemic.
Medical treatment – which includes the right medical doctor, the right medication, and the right therapy – is very effective in helping an individual make their way towards recovery. But there are other elements that promote recovery. They are hope, a trusting connection with others and a belief that change is possible.
Members of congregations can play a large part in supporting individuals who are living with mental illness. They can be trained to be companions during difficult times. They can be a steadfast source of hope.
Even when it seems all hope is gone, hope can still germinate and grow given the right environment. We can practice hopeful thinking, embrace a hopeful attitude. When someone is feeling hopeless, faithful companions can be a source of hope, a steadying influence, reminding them that their hope can be restored and their life can be good again.
At the General Assembly being held in St. Louis in June, church leaders will review the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s policy written 10 years ago called “Comfort My People,” which addressed serious mental illness. This year, GA will be asked to allocate funds to support mental health education in churches, presbyteries and seminaries — a decision that could make mental health education possible throughout the denomination.
There are many resources available to create awareness in your congregation. NAMI, the National Association on Mental Illness, has a FaithNet section on its website. There you will find a PowerPoint presentation called “Bridges of Hope” to raise awareness. There are also sample sermons, articles and prayers for healing.
Faith, Hope and Good Mental Health, a mental health ministry supported by the PC(USA), has two models for churches to use. One is a six-week small group curriculum, the other is a model for an ongoing support group. These programs use spiritual practices to look at anxiety, depression, loneliness, loss and grief. All of these experiences occur naturally in life, but, sometimes, we get stuck and are unable to get out of an emotional bind which can lead to mental health concerns. These groups help individuals share their life stories in a safe setting. We use creativity to help them find meaning in their lives. This method allows them the freedom to do that.
After the class on loneliness in the six-week small group model, one participant told me that the sharing of loneliness got him in touch with how very lonely he felt. That was a starting point for him; he began to recognize the sorrow in his life and get support from others. He began to feel connected to others in the class.
A woman who attended the open-ended support group starting coming when her college-aged son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was away at college, so it was very hard for her to know how to help him. She came to the group for nine months. Over that period of time, she gained strength and eventually left the group, having gotten what she needed.
People may feel freed up to let go of hidden fears and sorrows when they find themselves in a safe space for sharing. They may find support from others in the group and feel more comfortable with their difficult life experiences.
Kathy Dale McNair is the executive director of Faith, Hope and Good Mental Health. She is a specialized PC(USA) pastor affiliated with Winnetka Presbyterian Church in Illinois.