Let’s Make the Connections: A Sermon About Mental Health and Mental Illness

Sharon Gresk, (UUS:E Mental Health Ministry)

Beginning in March of 1990, I was hospitalized for seven weeks at the Institute of Living, in Hartford. I’ve never made this information much of a secret in spite of the fact that the last words of advice I remember receiving as I left were basically this: “Your clinical depression is considered a serious mental illness and it will be best for you if you don’t tell people about your condition. If you do, you may lose friends and certainly will lose job opportunities.”

I was stunned. It was 1990. Don’t talk about it? Obviously, this was the stigma of mental illness and they were asking me to be part of it. Don’t talk about it? How would I ever let others who might be having similar problems, know that there was help available, there was light at the end of the dark tunnel, that they, too, could live happy, friend-filled, productive lives, if I didn’t talk about it? HOW WOULD THE STIGMA EVER END?

So—I disregarded the advice. Every time I shared my story there were always someone who said, “Wow, I thought I was the only one!” or simply, “Me too.” And, as a result, connections began. Many brain disorders, or mental illnesses, or brain dis-eases, or whatever name they are being called this year to be politically correct, are actually chemical imbalances in the brain. Those who have talked to their doctor about their problems may have found the help they need there, or they may have been referred to a psychiatrist, who gave them the medication – or a cocktail of medications – they needed to regain this chemical balance for their brain. Often, besides medication, talk therapy is added with a social worker, a therapist, or a psychologist. Once again, more connections are made.

To bring the realization here of how many people are included in this web of connections, I would like to try something. Would those of you, who have yourself or who have a family member or a close friend who has been involved in the mental health system, please stand up? … Thank you. …We do have so many connections. 2007 is the year I refer to as “my lost year.” It was an entire year spent on trying to regulate my medications. This is a “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” method which meant much of the time I could hardly drag myself even to services because my depression was out of control. It was also the year that people seemed to come out of no where to talk to me about their depression. We talked, but I finally went to Josh and told him that I felt that all our wonderful social justice work that was being done for folks outside our church wasn’t enough. I felt we had many people who came to our church every Sunday who needed to know they were welcome and could find folks who would understand them here. He agreed, but neither of us quite knew where to find the time or how to get started. We did try a small Affinity Group. It met once.

It wasn’t until I became Pastoral Care committee head, when JoAnne Gillespie came to a meeting to discuss the Visioning Statement that the idea of a Mental Health Ministry really came into focus for me. I had done some searching on the internet and and had found we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.

This is an excerpt from an article by Rev. Barbara Meyers, a community minister from Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, California, written in 2006.

“Since the 1990s there has been an explosion of studies on religion and how it affects physical and mental healing. Most of this published empirical data suggests that religious commitment plays a significantly beneficial role in preventing mental and physical illness, improving how people cope with mental and physical illness, and facilitating recovery from illness.

  • Those aspects which seem to be most helpful are that religion:
  • offers a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose, and thus emotional well-being
  • affords solutions to many kinds of emotional and situational conflicts
  • establishes moral guidelines to serve self and others
  • promotes social cohesion
  • offers a social identity and a place to belong

The principles of Unitarian Universalism significantly contribute to such helpful religious characteristics. In particular, the principles of:

  • the inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • a free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • justice, equity and compassion in human relationships
  • acceptance of one another and spiritual growth in our congregations

Each of these speak directly to the emotional and social well-being of Unitarian Universalists. Since both spiritual and rational world views are embraced in our sources of religious truth, self-direction and internal control are enhanced. Furthermore, religious characteristics that have been found empirically to be harmful to mental health, including guilt, devaluing human nature, punishment in hell, and paranoia about evil, are not generally true of Unitarian Universalists.”

Barbara’s information continued on with how to reach the congregation and we followed her advice.

We put out a notice for everyone who was interested in anything to do with mental health, to meet on March 29th in the morning—it was scheduled to be the first meeting in the new building! You may also remember the Annual Appeal Kick-off was scheduled for that same evening. Remember the Kick-off was NOT held in the new building?—and neither was the meeting. But, it was the only morning Josh had open for months so we decided to meet at my house.

Much to my surprise, 15 members of our church came to 20 Jensen Street for the meeting from 9 to noon. Our house is far from grand in scale, so we all squashed into our little cape cod living room to talk. The introductions alone took nearly an hour and a half. Each person had an open-hearted story to tell and the trust level in the room was amazing. By 11:45 they had introduced subjects like, “How do you ever get through the red tape to get much needed services, especially when your insurance is very limited?” to statements like “Often, very intelligent people appear to be “too high functioning” by mental health providers, and are often denied services because it is thought they don’t need them.

Many people confuse high intelligence with automatic real world success and emotional stability so so you’re basically left high and dry,” and on to “I’m NOT my mental illness, my mental illness is only a part of me” Everyone was just getting warmed up…and it was time to quit. We asked the group what they wanted to see happen next. Some wanted a support group (not a therapy group), some wanted a family and friends support group, and others wanted to have an education component so that they could learn and understand what they had not personally experienced, to be able to offer compassion and understanding when it is needed.

As far as I’ve ever been able to figure, I think having a culture and climate where we can talk about depression, or any other brain disorder, is of utmost importance. Somehow, we need to make a shift in our thinking to include brain disorders the same way we consider body disorders. Whether someone has cancer or depression they didn’t do anything to cause themselves to have them. They also don’t expect to be shunned because of either of them, but it happens. A lot of it has to do with how we name it, what language we use to describe it. We are dealing with people who are our friends or family members, people we love. We are looking at ways to show compassion for one another. We need to connect on a very human heart-to-heart level.

Our shared ministry at UUS:East is a cherished tradition. We are all well aware that this ministry goes far beyond Sunday services. When I hear of UUs who do so much for social justice to include those who are shunned by many in our society today, our anti-racism movement, helping feed the poor and homeless, the Rainbow coalition, and countless others, I know our Mental Health Ministry has to be counted among them. We need to continue to make the connections.

We have started an Affinity group that is run as a Small Group Ministry. We’ve been getting together the 1st and 3rd Monday of each month since June. When I asked everyone who was at the meeting the first Monday in August, how they were feeling about the group there were a variety of comments.

One person simply said, “I like it a lot. I feel like the church is helping me.” After some discussion these additional thoughts emerged: “The mental health small group has provided validation for us, reducing the isolation and feeling of stigma that can be associated with brain disorders. It has encouraged us to bring the topic “out of the closet” and into the forefront, as we’ve done with Gay rights and racial diversity as UUs.”

That was followed by: “Sometimes at church we focus on ideal situations — kids with great scholastic achievement, people receiving accolades and honors, when many of us are struggling with less than ideal stuff in our own lives. We, or our loved ones, have mental health problems and/or substance abuse issues. How can we share the tough stuff with each other, as well as the wonderful stuff, and feel safe doing that? This small group has given us a safe place but it would be nice to feel safe sharing difficult news with the greater congregation.”

So, what happens next? In many ways, it’s up to you. Are we ready, as a congregation, to make these sometimes difficult connections? Hopefully we can to start a family and friends support group this fall. To do this we will need one or two folks to step up to help lead this group…anyone willing to help out, see me after the service!

For the education component I have purchased Barbara Meyer’s book that includes seven workshops for members of the congregation. They are outlined and ready to be taught. She suggests we have professional mental health workers and those who have experienced brain disorders to work together to teach these workshops. I’m amazed how many members we have who are in the mental health field, and how many have been touched by mental health issues. I’m hoping to get at least 14 people to agree to take the training workshop to prepare for doing these 7 workshops (that way each pair only has to teach one class!) So, if you’re ready, there are many ways to participate in the connections of the Mental Health Ministry!

One last thought. This is from “Einstein’s God” by Krista Tippett as she interview of Parker Palmer. Here he’s speaking for himself about his depression. “I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go…feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that leaves a depressed person even more depressed. Because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. Other people would come and say, “Gosh Parker, why are you so depressed? You’re such a good person. You’ve helped so many people.” And that would leave me feeling more depressed because I would feel I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.”

But there was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock. He sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. What he mainly did for me was be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. It became a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering, but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where this person who is on the dark side of the moon, can get a little confidence so that they can come around to the other side.