Is it really safe to forget mental illness?

by Rev. Alan Johnson

Is it really safe to forget mental illness?

This is a probing question that was prompted by a conversation with the Rev. Pat Bruns of First United Methodist Church of Boulder (FUMC).  FUMC has begun promoting a mental health ministry, and Rev. Bruns agreed to share how he and his congregation are addressing this serious issue.

Rev. Bruns said that “all churches have experiences with persons who are living with mental health issues. Our church is a large, solid structure, and I believe some people are drawn to the church simply because of the strength of the building. I don’t know about any studies about this, but some people come to draw upon the obvious strength of the structure to build up their own inner strength, especially when there are mental health challenges that come along.”

However, it was the Newtown, Conn. elementary school shooting that garnered the church’s will to address the issue of mental health.  “Although it was mostly the media that conflated mental illness and violence, which is very unfortunate, it did give a boost to the beginnings of our church’s mental health ministry,” Pat said. “Our intention is to address how to be in partnership with other faith communities and organizations to support people with mental illnesses and their families and friends. In a smaller way, we hope to advocate for changes in our community to overcome what isolates and stigmatizes people who have mental illness.”

“I was surprised when I realized that, like us, many faith communities have not had a strong active engagement in mental health ministries. This is not meant as a judgment, but it indicated to us that we are right in the mix with others who might be addressing these concerns, too.” A small group of FUMC members gathered to explore ways to expand their vision of a mental health ministry. They began by hosting the Mental Health First Aid class (MHFA) taught by the Mental Health Partners and offering the dramatic story-telling, “How I Learned to Talk,” by Diana Hoguet.  Both of these programs were very well received.  “The MHFA was one of the best one-day experiences I have ever had,” reflected Pat.  “The program, with a stellar workbook, honors the complexity of the issues of mental illness while also not leaving one hopeless. It brings insight and hopefulness about how to engage with people with these issues.”

The presentation by Diana Hoguet offered a “story of openness and is a powerful invitation to be honest about our own stories. Especially as a Christian minister, the story echoes the Christian story of life and struggle, of suffering and goodness, and eventually tells me about redemptive suffering.  I would hope the presentation can continue to be offered.”

Bruns cautioned that there can be obstacles to developing a mental health ministry in a faith community, too. First, “focusing on institutional survival, the day-to-day challenges can make one lose sight of the broader vision.  Mental health issues can be easily put to the sidelines.  There seem to be no immediate consequences in not facing this. It is safe to forget it,” he said. Second, “it takes acts of intention, to pay attention” to the hurts, the silent suffering, and the isolation that comes with mental illness. Third, “there is also limited knowledge about mental illness among clergy,” he states. “Even when clergy are trying to be pastoral, if their training has not prepared them, they can be burned themselves by getting into situations that are over their head. That may lead to avoiding the issue completely.”

Every faith community will find challenges as it searches for ways to address mental health issues. It can do so by avoiding it, by forgetting about it, or by finding ways that can bring awareness and education to the congregation so that the reality of mental health challenges can be welcomed, supported, included, and engaged.  FUMC will continue to further and enrich its mental health ministry by building partnerships and being aware and attentive to mental health struggles within their congregation.

Alan Johnson

Chair of the Board of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.