Today I want to talk about how we can be radically inclusive and welcoming to those who struggle with mental and emotional health issues. What’s the most affirming and least derogatory way we can even bring this subject up? I don’t think any of us would want to be referred to as mentally ill, nor would anyone who struggles with their mental or emotional health. This is not language that helps a person with mental or emotional health issues feel very welcome. Some folks prefer language like mental health consumer, user of mental health services, person with a mental health history or a person with mental health issues. Some people who have been diagnosed, prefer a person with the such and such diagnosis, for instance a person with the diagnosis schizophrenia rather than being labeled a schizophrenic. I remember when I first started working as an aide at a psychiatric hospital back in 1979, a young man was admitted who had the diagnosis of schizophrenia. One day I sat down with him to talk. He said to me that he had no reason to take any responsibility for his life because everyone had labeled him a schizophrenic. He was seen as an illness, an aberration, boxed up, labeled, and shelved under a category with specific expectations of how he will think and behave. So he was just going to do whatever he wanted and to heck with everyone else. His family was aware of his do-whatever attitude and very concerned about this young man, but continued to call him a schizophrenic, not realizing how the label was contributing to the issues that he faced. A diagnosis is not who the person is, it is a diagnosis. It makes me wonder what other labels we use that are not helpful, like being labeled a diabetic rather than a person with diabetes. Labels seem very black and white; like once you have been labeled there is no going back to just being a plain old person.
According to one study 55% of the respondents reported that churches are widely perceived by outsiders, people who don’t attend a church, to be unwelcoming places for persons with mental or emotional issues. (research done by Life Way Research in 2013, Mental Health and Christian Churches) And there is probably some truth to that. In my 15 years as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have heard stories from ministerial colleagues about parents saying that their depressed/bipolar/anxious child was not very welcomed by the teachers or the other kids in the religious education program. This is an issue that is routinely raised in different UU churches across the country. And even though I think many of our congregations are trying to be more sensitive to issues like this, I think we still have much to learn about how to be welcoming to people with mental or emotional health issues.
The same study I mentioned earlier, found that the response of people in church to an individual’s mental or emotional health issues caused 18% to break ties with a church and 5% to fail to find any church to attend. And 17% of family members in a household of someone with acute mental illness reported that their family member’s mental or emotional health issues impacted which church their family chose to attend. One more statistic from the study: 65 % of church going families with a member with a mental health diagnosis want their church to talk more openly about mental health issues. (research done by Life Way Research in 2013, Mental Health and Christian Churches)
One in five people has some sort of mental or emotional health issue (NAMI). According to this statistic it is very likely some people in this room have struggled with mental or emotional health issues. And yet how often do we talk about mental and emotional health? We do some. A few classes offered by our Pastoral Care Ministers, but probably do not do it enough. And how do we support our members and friends with mental and emotional health issues? In my time here we have tried our best, sometimes more successful than others, to support our members and friends with mental and emotional health issues. Is there more we can do?
Here is one of the conundrums we face in trying to be more welcoming to visitors to this church with mental or emotional health issues, we may never know if a person is a consumer of mental health services, because they may not feel safe sharing that part of themselves, or they may not hear this congregation talking about mental or emotional health issues. Mental or emotional health issues are generally very difficult to recognize. Wheelchairs and walkers are easy to see, but you cannot see if a person is taking an anti-depressant. And someone who has a mental or emotional health issue has to hide it in the world outside our walls, so they are unlikely to talk about it until they trust that this is a safe place for them to talk about it. You see many people with mental or emotional health issues face stigma and real discrimination in the world outside this church. When I was a psychotherapist, I saw many active military personnel and commercial pilots. These people always paid for their sessions in cash. They didn’t want anyone to know that they were seeking help, because of the chance that their livelihood would be taken away from them was pretty high. And they were afraid to take any medication because if anyone found out or it showed up in their systems they would be discharged or their licenses revoked. It’s been several years since I’ve practiced psychotherapy, but I’m pretty sure these continue to be real issues today. I strongly feel I would rather have a pilot who is receiving mental health care when he/she/they need it, rather than one who doesn’t get the help they need.
And there is still real stigma out there. Imagine moving into a new house in a new neighborhood, and your neighbors discover you have a diagnosis of "psychosis." What do you think might happen? The myths about mental health issues feed the stigmas and are deeply entrenched in our culture. Some of the myths are: people who are mental health consumers are dangerous, mental instability is evidence of character flaws or weakness, the mentally or emotionally impaired have nothing of value to offer to society. And it is all too often that I hear people wondering if mental health issues are contagious, if being around someone who is depressed will make you depressed.
These are passages from An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison. Jamison is Professor of Psychiatry at John Hopkins School of Medicine and has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder or what used to be called Manic Depressive Disorder.
“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You're frightened, and you're frightening, and you're "not at all like yourself but will be soon," but you know you won't.”
“No amount of love can cure madness or unblacken one's dark moods. [But] Love can help, it can make the pain more tolerable…”
In an Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, you hear her speak of a couple of problems that people with mental or emotional health issues and those who want to help or support them face: a difficulty in communicating and a struggle with empathy. I can’t emphasize enough that saying to someone who is going through a difficult time that you understand what they are going through is not helpful. Really the only way you can begin to understand what person is going through is to ask them. Your role then is listening and asking questions of clarification to help you understand what the person is saying to you while being careful not to be intrusive. And doing this with a loving spirit, expressing interest, and demonstrating a willingness to be with them. Not to offer helpful suggestions. Not to try to “fix” them. Your role is to listen and engage with them in a loving, non-judging, supportive way. This may sound familiar because this is what our Pastoral Ministry Associates do when they visit a person who is in distress. And here’s one other thing, you don’t have to be perfect with your language or in your listening skills, you just have to be willing to try to understand and continue to show them lovingkindness even when the person you are talking to says something like, “You know I really don’t like it when you use the term mental illness. I wish you wouldn’t use it when you are talking with me.” Don’t react defensively. Listen and show them respect.
You heard Steve Cooper earlier mention our Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry. They are exploring how we can make this church more welcoming to all people who join us. But I wondered how other Unitarian Universalist Churches are trying to be more welcoming to people with mental and emotional health issues. I found Mission Peak UU Congregation in Freemont California; they have a Mental Health Ministry. The mission of this ministry is compassionate service to people with mental health challenges and to their families, within and beyond the walls of their congregation. On their website they have a link to a Caring Congregations Curriculum developed by their community minister Rev. Barbara F. Meyers. This curriculum aims to help congregations be more welcoming and includes a guide called: Resources for Welcoming and Supporting those with Mental Disorders and their Families Into Our Congregations. What was particularly interesting to me was that Reverend Barbara felt it was necessary to start the curriculum with definitions of religion and spirituality. She wrote: “The terms ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ both have many meanings, and there is sometimes a distinction made between them. For the purposes of this curriculum, we define ‘religion’ as: An ongoing process of restoring personal wholeness. In a more universal sense it is the process of restoring one's relationship with the world, with the universe, with Ultimate Reality, the Sacred, or God, however conceived. ‘Spirituality’ we define as: a form of religion, but a private and personal form of religion, that which a person feels internally that relates them to the sacred [as they understand it].” I thought this was interesting that defining these two terms took precedence over getting to the nuts and bolts of welcoming and supporting those with mental and emotional issues and their families into the congregation. I can only speculate on this, but it seems to me that presenting these definitions is another way of being welcoming. You see the definitions offer hope. No guarantees of healing, just the hope that with a loving and supportive Unitarian Universalist religious community walking beside them, that a person with a mental or emotional health issue may find a path to personal wholeness.
Within this curriculum are recommendations on how to help people with mental or emotional health issues feel that they are part of the church community by including them in decision-making, encouraging them to join committees, offering them positions in leadership; all this empowering them to be active members of the church community. The curriculum also addresses how a church can provide ongoing mental health education and mental health community resources to church members and the community. Another aspect of the curriculum discusses how important justice work for mental health issues is—from lobbying to speaking up in social situations when a person with mental health issues is harassed. The curriculum mentions some things that make a person with mental health issues feel unwelcome: minimizing the severity of a mental or emotional illness, questioning the validity of a specific diagnosis, and questioning the legitimacy of licensed professionals.Each person who joins us wants to experience us as a welcoming community that can be a spiritual home to them. I believe that each person who walks in our doors needs something specific to make them feel truly and deeply welcomed. And we will only know what that is if we ask, and then listen to what they have to say. We may not be perfect at meeting the welcoming needs of every person who joins us, but I don’t think we need to be perfect. We just need to be authentic and make a good faith effort.
So as we continue this journey together, may we welcome all those who wish to join us, understanding that anyone who joins us will bring value and worth into this community. So let’s travel light, bringing with us the spirit of love and expectation and our hopes and dreams as we bear witness to the future breaking in. Come along with me sojourner, seeker, pilgrim secure in the knowledge that we never travel alone; we are here with and for one another.