Last year with the release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” I decided to watch the 1962 film of her first book “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Produced over 50 years ago this Pulitzer prize winner reflects real time themes of racism, violence and gender roles. But what struck me most was the stigma of mental illness. Like the Gerasene demoniac who was chained, cared for in a cemetery and lived outside city limits, Boo Radley was shunned and lived in the shadows of this story-line. No ordinary Mockingbird who mimics another birdsong, Boo sung to his own beat because he had a mental illness.
As a a psychotherapist in the seventies, I worked with people like Boo Radley. Motivated by mood-managing drugs, The Community Mental Health Act (1963) mainstreamed patients from institutions and returned them to the community. On the surface this seemed like a good idea. Returning patient’s power, reuniting them with families and mingling with the public was a way to normalize mental health conditions. But it failed. Most families I worked with north of Boston didn’t want relatives back. And 24-hour Dunkin Dounut shops and CVS pharmacies didn’t want to become known as a “community center" for mental health conditions. "It’s not good for business,” they said. Sadly, systemic silence, shaming, shunning and stigma still surrounds mental illness today. Both in society and religious sanctuaries.
What is mental illness? Defined by governmental gold standard NIMH (National Institute for Mental Health), it’s a “functional impairment” that can range from mild to serious that “substantially interferes with or limits, one or more major life activities” (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/index.shtml). NAMI (National Association for Mental Illness), America’s largest grassroots mental health organization says it simpler: “A mental illness is a condition that impacts a person's thinking, feeling or mood and can effect one’s ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis” (https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions). For warning signs see http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Know-the-Warning-Signs. The causes of mental health conditions are layered and complex. Genetics, environment, brain chemistry and traumatic life events are all pieces of the puzzle.
According to SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) latest report (February, 2014), 1 in 5 Americans struggle with mental illness. That’s about 42.5 million American adults, or 18.2 percent of the total adult population in the US (http://www.newsweek.com/nearly-1-5-americans-suffer-mental-illness-each-year-230608). Because the church is embedded in society, credible statistics suggests that these same rates of mental illness cut across faith communities. According to U of L psychiatrist Robert Frierson, these are common mental health conditions clergy are likely to see:
An advocate for mental illness for 25 years, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter summarizes the scope of the problem and calls us to take action: “People with mental problems are our neighbors. They are members of our congregations and families. If we ignore their cries for help, we will be continuing to participate in the anguish from which those cries of help come. A problem of this magnitude will not go away. Because it will not go away, and because of our spiritual commitments, we are compelled to take action.”
Heeding Carter’s call, United Methodist minister Susan Gregg-Schroeder founded Mental Health Ministries with a vision of producing high quality resources to reduce the stigma of mental illness in faith communities. At a conference last year (Understanding Mental Illness and Offering Hope: A Perspective for Clergy), we were given this excellent resource guide that you can download here: http://www.mentalhealthministries.net/resources/study_guide.html).
According to scholarly research studies, Gregg-Schroeder was on point to provide high quality resources for clergy. A study in the sixties showed that 42 percent of those seeking help for emotional problems sought it from clergy (Gurin, et al; 1960). But more recent research (Wang, et al; 2003) reduces the rate to 23.5 by the early nineties (ibid). Though clergy still play a crucial role in the mental health delivery system, this study raises concern about religious having adequate training to recognize/treat mental health issues and little awareness of how to make referrals to professionals who do. In a growing climate of evidence based practices that are proven most effect for mental health conditions, these concerns are only heightened.
Now a therapist for over 25 years who’s also been a parish minster for 14, I agree with the research: Most religious leaders aren’t equipped to recognize and treat or refer mental disorders. Add to this the likelihood that over 2/3 (66%) of pastors don’t even “speak to the church in sermons or large group messages about mental illness” (http://www.christianpost.com/news/stigma-of-mental-illness-still-real-inside-the-church-lifeway-research-reveals-126832/). Still, I believe that religious leaders can do what professional therapists can’t: Pray with people, Include their needs in worship. Embrace them in a faith community. Sit with them in dark places. Listen to their stories. Stories are transformative. I felt that power when Rev. Sarah Lund’s told her story at a workshop entitled Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness at The 30th General Synod of United Church of Christ.* After sharing her testimony she turned to the attendees and asked us to tell our story, too. No longer strangers. We were one.
In a real sense that’s what Harper Lee’s character Scout dared to do with Boo Radley. She heard his story and walked in his shoes. She was brave enough to look him in the eye, grip his hand and walk with him down a small street in Southern Alabama. With her actions she was bearing witness to his story. It didn’t make the suffering go away. But in the same way that Jesus raised the status of a Gerasene demoniac, Scout changed the stigma on Boo Radley’s back. Telling our stories is important. Because "if I tell it anywhere right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours (Buechner, 11).
Buechner, F. Telling Secrets. New York, NY: Harper.
Carter, R. (1990). A voice for the voiceless. The church and the mentally ill; second opinion: The church’s challenge in health care. Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics, (45-46).
Gurin, G., Veroff, F., Feld, S. (1960). Americans View Their Mental Health: A Nationwide Survey. New York, NY: Basic.
Lee, H. (1960). To Kill A Mockingbird. New York, NY: Grand Central.
Lund, S. (2014). Blessed Are the Crazy. St. Louis, MO: Chalice.
Understanding mental illness and offering hope: A perspective for clergy. (2014, Nov 13). Norton Healthcare Church and Health Ministries.
Wang, P., Berglund, P., Kessler, R. (2003; April). Patterns and correlates of contacting clergy for mental disorders in the United States; 38(2): 647-673.
• Rev. Alan Johnson, a co-founder of the interfaith Network on Mental Illness and chair of the UCC Mental Health Network co-led Break the Silence about Mental Illness with Sarah Lund. At the 30 General Synod of the United Christ a resolution was passed “calling the people of God to justice for people with serious mental illnesses (brain disorders).” For more information and resources for your church please visit http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/resolution_20.html