Recently a former parishioner whom I hadn’t heard from for at least 20 years called me. She suffered then but her symptoms are more infrequent and less severe, having received new treatments and developed life skills to help her. She has become an advocate for awareness of mental health for the church and especially the clergy. She has spoken around the country on her own experiences.
She told me that she experiences so many clergy and churches (to the point she can’t find one where she feels comfortable) that just can’t “handle” her and her occasional symptoms. Largely she feels that mental illness make people afraid. Afraid of not knowing how to respond. Afraid of not knowing what to do. Afraid of what someone like her will do. I’ll admit to feeling that way over the years as the pastor of a number of parishioners with extreme mental illness, including her.
May is mental health awareness month. Statistics indicate that mental illness affects up to half the population at some point in our lives. If nothing else, the church should be a place where we reduce the stigma of mental illness so that we can save lives. As long as people feel there is a stigma, they may not seek treatment and treatment is effective in many if not all cases.
The sad truth is that our jails and prisons are the default places of custodial care for people with serious mental illness, including many who are non-violent. Many people go without treatment. My concern is that if we “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act without the Medicaid provisions, we will have more people suffering from the effects of mental illness, which can be life-threatening to them and others; a totally avoidable reality.
The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, Section 162, paragraph X, pledges that we will as a church foster policies that promote compassion, advocate for access to care, and eradicate the stigma within the church and our communities.
I urge you as clergy and churches to talk about mental health during the month of May; in a sermon, Bible study, or even mention those who suffer from mental illness in the pastoral prayer. Sometimes just openly talking about it helps people who are suffering from the stigma to know there is someone who cares and that someone might be you. You might be able to help that person find help. Who knows, you might save a life.
Click here for resources from the General Board of Church and Society.
Click here for resources and articles on Faith and Mental Health from the United Methodist Church.