What a box lunch can do!

by Rev Alan Johnson

During a box lunch at the White House Conference on Mental Health in June 2013, a psychiatrist and a faith leader began a conversation about the interface between mental health and faith. Given that the psychiatrist was the president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, Paul Summergrad, and the faith leader was Rev. Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, a leader in the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition, energy erupted as they met for the first time over lunch.

Their initial conversation led to 45 people from across the country coming together for a one-day event, “Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership Steering Committee Meeting,” just over a year later, on Friday, July 11, 2014 at the national offices of the APA in Arlington, Va. Participants represented a strong balance between psychiatrists and faith leaders.

The goal of the meeting was “to discuss and discern how religious and psychiatric leaders might work more effectively with one another to address the prevalence of mental illness in our society and stigma associated with mental health conditions.”

The meeting’s “fire in the belly” came from a talk by Patrick Kennedy. His urgent charge to us, his passionate plea, was for us to take leadership on addressing stigma about mental illness and act to adopt parity legislation. Sharing his personal and his family’s history of speaking out and acting for those who are marginalized and minimalized, he beckoned us to be like those who participated in the Freedom Rides or those who integrated the luncheon counters by holding demonstrations. The whole room was ablaze with promise and call. Such conviction is needed to propel our work.

My sense is that the combined wisdom and experience of the group may have been well beyond where some of the presentations took us.

Presentations about the resources presently available from each of the sides on the bridge, APA and faith leaders, were helpful. APA does offer resources on faith/spirituality/religion, and the faith proponents do offer resources about mental health. I, as a faith leader, was unaware that the APA had these resources and I am pretty sure that APA members don’t know about the faith resources. So these presentations were a step in the right direction.

Above all, it was a ground-breaking meeting. It was energizing and very positive. It was intensive and expansive. It was rich and textured.

I came to the meeting with high expectations, perhaps unrealistically high considering it was just a one-day conference. My disappointments could have been addressed with more time for networking and for probing questions, more time for in-depth conversations about the language we were using. Do psychiatrists and clergy mean the same thing when they refer to “spirituality” and “recovery,” for example? We needed time to explore the prejudices and misconceptions we each hold about the others’ work and to dispel the distrust that has permeated some of our interactions in the past. We needed time to discuss the current interface between our professions and what our vision for the future might look like. Had there been more time available for structured conversations, I am sure greater connections could have been made. If real encounter is to happen, there needs to be profound listening and transparent responses. And that takes time.

In reality, the meeting was a baby step in terms of action, while also marking a huge leap in setting the stage for further work. I caught a glimpse of what the future could look like.

It all started with a box lunch. Who knows where it will end?

The Rev. Alan Johnson

Chair, Interfaith Network on Mental Illness (www.inmi.us)

Chair, United Church of Christ Mental Health Network (www.mhn-ucc.blogspot.com)

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.