Where the Wood Drake Rests Not: Reflections on Mental Health Ministry

Visible and Speakable

Our congregation has conducted a Mental Health Ministry for the last six or seven years. Sharon Gresk was the original visionary behind this ministry. She remains one of our in-house experts on offering pastoral support to people with mental illness. The current leaders of this ministry are Sarah Karstaedt and Christine Joyner. I am grateful for their ongoing commitment. The Mental Health Ministry has sponsored a variety of programs and activities. We’ve held affinity groups for people with mental illness, for people in recovery, for caregivers. We’ve taught courses on mental illness. We’ve sponsored forums like this afternoon’s National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) event. We’ve hosted performances of the Free at Last Players. We’ve sought continuing education for ourselves. We’re connected to an emerging network of faith communities, mental health chaplains and mental health care providers exploring the role of religion in addressing mental illness in the greater Hartford region. Twice a year we hold a Mental Health Ministry Summit when we gather for community, spiritual practice, continuing education and planning.

The heart of this ministry has been making mental illness visible and speakable here at UUS:E. Visibility and speakability are not easy qualities to measure, but when people speak openly about their mental illness, their medications, their addiction or their path to recovery; when people speak openly about family members or friends struggling with mental illness; when people arrive at our summit and find a vibrant, supportive, welcoming community; when people are not afraid to share, “hey, I’m having a bad week,” “I’m feeling down,” “I need help”—it says to me the heart of this ministry is alive and well.  

This is how it should be. Mental illness is a difficult, painful reality in the lives of many people and their families. In past services we’ve invited you to stand if mental illness has touched your life, the life of someone in your family or the life of a friend. Virtually everyone stands. Yet, despite the reality that mental illness is very common, there is still enormous stigma attached to it; still subtle, but widespread discrimination against people with mental illness; still a lack of parity in funding for mental health treatment compared to treatment for physical illness. Faith communities are not innocent when it comes to perpetuating the stigma. In fact, faith communities are some of the worst offenders. For a variety of reasons faith communities are, more often than not, fearful, silent and unwelcoming toward people with mental illness. The reasons might be theological, cultural, social, economic. Whatever they are, it is my firm conviction that faith communities cannot claim to be welcoming to all, cannot claim to be ‘for all people, cannot claim to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person if mental illness remains invisible and unspeakable. Has our Mental Health Ministry been perfect? No. But have increased the visibility and speakability of mental illness? Yes, absolutely. Whenever a member or friend of this congregation with mental illness tells me this place feels like home to them because they do not have to hide this particular part of themselves, it is a moment of immense pride for me as the congregation’s minister. But it’s not perfect, and thus I’d like to share a few reflections on broad future directions for our mental health ministry based on what I’ve learn from people who participate in it.

Where the Wood Drake Rests Not, or

Let’s Not Confuse Spiritual Care with Medical Care

Our hymnal includes beloved words by the poet Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water…. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”[1] I have preached from these words many times; I will preach from them again. They offer a remedy for fear and despair, for angst, anxiety, worry, panic, hopelessness, sorrow, melancholy, desperation, dispiritedness, despondency, depression. So often in response to any of these feelings the remedy we offer as Unitarian Universalists is some version of “go and lie down where the wood drake rests.” Reconnect with the natural world. As one of the Mental Health Ministry participants described it: “Go for a walk, smell the roses, write in a journal, visit a beach, be in nature, etc.”

Sylvia Plath was an American poet who committed suicide in 1963. Here death came just a few weeks after the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar, which is widely understood as the story of her struggle with mental illness.  Earlier I read her 1961 poem, “I Am Vertical.” It offers a very different take on ‘lying down’ in the natural world—a provocative contrast to “The Peace of Wild Things.” Where Berry offers ‘lying down’ as a spiritual practice to center, calm and reconnect oneself, for Plath ‘lying down’ is fraught. It reminds her, “I am not a tree with my root in the soil / Sucking up minerals and motherly love.” It reminds her, I am not “the beauty of a garden bed.” She craves that sense of connection and identity but it never happens. “Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, / The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors. / I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.” There is sadness here, a sense of distance and isolation. The hardest thing about this poem, which we dare not miss: she imagines she is closest to connection when she is asleep, when her “thoughts [have] gone dim.” Only her death will bring anything close to the peace of wild things: “I shall be useful when I lie down finally: / The trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.”[2]

Reading Sylvia Plath next to “Peace of Wild Things” reminds me to stay vigilant about the difference between ministry and medicine. Neither of these poems make this distinction, but the contrast between them points to it. “Peace of Wild Things” offers a spiritual remedy. It says, “do something to connect with a reality larger than yourself.” For many people it is an effective remedy, especially if the angst, anxiety, or despair they’re experiencing is primarily spiritual in nature. But is it sufficient for a person with mental illness, especially a person whose mental illness is chemical in nature—not emerging from spiritual disconnection, but rather from an internal neuro-chemical imbalance? Spiritual dis-ease is not the same thing as mental illness. The two conditions may appear the same, may overlap, may occur simultaneously—spiritual dis-ease is often a symptom of mental illness—but they are not the same. Spiritual leaders and faith communities must be careful not to inadvertently offer spiritual remedies as treatment for mental illness. It can be quite problematic to gloss over mental illness with a purely spiritual assessment.

For example, sometimes medication is the only treatment that keeps a person’s mental illness under control. In my experience, the more severe the illness, the more this is true. If clergy and congregations only ever address mental illness in purely spiritual terms—which, in a more fundamentalist setting might be the assessment that one is possessed by demons; and in a more liberal setting might be the implication that really all you need is a dose of the great outdoors—there is always a risk that a person on medication may hear the message that their medication is unnecessary. If they’re looking for an excuse to not take their meds, there it is. Go lie down where the wood drake rests. My instinct is that this kind of lack of compliance will be relatively rare here, but it happens. We need to send a clear message: spiritual remedies complement, but do not replace, medical treatments. As a church we don’t and can’t provide medical treatment, but we can make sure the spiritual remedies we offer support and affirm the  medical treatment people are receiving.

Another example. A person living with mental illness might take the minister’s spiritual advice to heart—might take that walk, spend time outdoors, lie down where the wood drake rests, pray long and hard. It might even have a positive impact. But their mental illness remains unchanged. The risk is that they may begin to feel they aren’t doing their spiritual practice right, that there’s ‘something else’ wrong with them, that they aren’t faithful enough, that they aren’t a good Unitarian Universalist. Because this is hard to admit, they may not talk about it. They may pull away, become more isolated at precisely the time they need their congregation most.

Another example. Sometimes spiritual practice just isn’t an option. As one caregiver said, “I can’t stop and smell the roses, I can’t go for a walk, I can’t take time to myself.  Every single moment of our existence is about keeping everyone safe and managing the disaster.  The roses might as well be on fire, and who has time to care if they are?” Again, the result is disconnection and isolation.

Hearing and understanding these concerns brings much more nuance to the way we address mental illness theologically and spiritually. I’ve learned that mental illness can make access to some of our typical theological language and spiritual practices difficult. Not everyone can lie down comfortably where the wood drake rests. Mental illness challenges all of us to think more broadly about the scope of our welcome, the limits of our inclusion. It pushes us to examine the gap between our words and our actions. It demands that we pay close attention to its medical dimensions as we address its spiritual dimensions. I don’t yet have answers to this challenge. But in the coming years I’d like to see us think and talk and pray our way into theological language and spiritual practices that take the reality of mental illness more fully into account. Spiritual practices for those who are verticle!

Weep–You Are Not Alone

I’ve been hearing the first line of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Solitude” my entire life. “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” I never knew the rest of the poem until this week. “Weep, and you weep alone…. / “Sing, and the hills will answer; /Sigh, it is lost on the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But shrink from voicing care. / Rejoice, and men will seek you; Grieve, and they turn and go; They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they do not need your woe.”[3] Apparently Wilcox was not writing from a place of compassion for depressed people. She was a proponent of ‘positive thinking,’ and with this poem she was essentially saying, “don’t be sad, because no one wants to be around sad people.” I don’t agree with her, but she’s speaking a hard truth. Most people don’t readily choose to spend time with those who are depressed, down, anxious. We do it when someone we love feels this way. But it’s not typically our first choice. We want the full measure of all your pleasure, but we do not need your woe.”

Nobody knows this truth more keenly than people who live with mental illness—their own, or that of a family member or friend. When I asked participants in our Mental Health Ministry what message they wanted the rest of the congregation to hear about mental illness, by far the most common response was isolation. Some comments stand out:

“Mental illness is not something people like to talk about because you can’t tie a pretty bow on it and make it better.  People often have advice like … ‘take time to myself, [go for a walk, smell the roses] … I just need to be able to take a shower…. I need company. I’ve had to give up so much. I am still isolated.  I am afraid to rejoin things because I know it’s going to happen again.” Another members says, “not talking about mental illness increases the stigma and makes those living with it feel invisible, unworthy, and left out.” Another says, “the isolation can be painful and dangerous. Isolation caused by shame or even by simply not knowing where to find like-suffering people compounds the problems.” Yet another says, “as a caretaker is that the situation is very isolating. Caregivers really need time with non-ill people, and I think you could remind the congregation of this simple fact.”

Visibility and speakability are important but not sufficient. A more robust compassion and presence come next—Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Building a congregational practice of deep compassion and presence at the heart of our Mental Health Ministry will lessen the gaps between our words and actions, and reduce peoples’ experience of isolation. Mindful of that, I felt called to write a new version of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Solitude,” a version that has at its heart compassion for and presence with people with mental illness, a version that welcomes the full range of human emotion and human psychiatric realities, a version that meets us fully not only in our joy but in the mess, the disaster, that sometimes unrelenting, unfixable despair. I call it “Multitude.”

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep—you are not alone; / For the good green earth, though it knows great mirth, / adopts your sorrow as its own. / Sing, and the hills will answer; / A sigh rides high in the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But they’ll come around voicing care. / Rejoice, and all will seek you; Grieve, still they won’t let you go; / They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they’ll not abandon you in your woe. / Be glad, and your friends are many; Be sad, and you’ll lose not one, / There are none to decline your nectared wine, / But they’ll stay through your bitter draft’s run. / Feast, and your halls are crowded; / Fast, and the world is not shy. / Succeed and give, and it helps you live, / And dear, tender souls help you die. / There is room in the halls of pleasure / For a large and lordly train, / And that is why we’ll all tarry on, / Together in our deepest pain.

Of course this is aspirational. We are not there yet. But it is time for Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Let’s move beyond visibility and speakability to a more tangible compassion and presence, a more nuanced theology and spirituality, an in-depth understanding of the medical dimensions of mental illness, and an ever-expanding sense of home for all who enter these halls.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Berry, Wendell, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #483.

[2] Plath, Sylvia, “I Am Vertical” in Hughes, Ted, ed., The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Haper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008) p. 162. See: http://www.neuroticpoets.com/plath/poem/vertical/.

[3] Wilcox, Ella Wheeler, “Solitude.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45937.

An Alternative “Wizard of Oz” with the Free At Last Players!

As part of greater Manchester’s Mental Health Awareness Month activities….

UUS:E’s Mental Health Ministry presents:

The Free At Last Players in an alternative Version of “The Wizard of Oz” 

Tuesday evening, May 17th, 7:00 PM at UUS:E, 153 West Vernon St., Manchester, CT, 06042

Free at Last Players

Purple Brick RoadJoin bipolar Dorothy on her walk down the purple-brick road.  Along the way you will meet a colorful cast of
characters who join Dorothy in her quest to overcome and combat the stigma of mental illness.

A Free Will offering will be taken!

The Free At Last Players are a Connecticut-based community theater troupe who use theater and music to educate audiences about mental illness.

For more information about this event, contact the UUS:E office at (860) 646-5151. For more information about UUS:E’s Mental Health Ministry visit here.

Interment of Carol Shapiro’s Ashes on 10/25 at 1:00 PM

Carol ShapiroThe Rev. Josh Pawelek will officiate at the interment of Carol Shapiro’s ashes on Sunday, October 25th at 1:00 PM in the UUS:E Memorial Garden. All are welcome. Carol was a beloved, long-time member of UUS:E. She is fondly remembered for her tender heart, her poetry, her creativity, her love of cats and her friendship.

Carol disappeared from her apartment in Manchester on August 31, 2007. In June of this year, police were finally able to confirm by DNA analysis that human remains discovered in Vernon, CT in March of 2013 were Carol’s remains.

At the time of her disappearance, police were fairly confident that she had ended her own life. While suicide is still the most widely accepted explanation for Carol’s death, there is not yet conclusive evidence that she took her own life.  Even without full confirmation of the cause of death, Carol’s family and the members and friends of UUS:E are greatly relieved that she has finally been found, and that she will finally ‘come home’ to a congregation and to land that was very special to her. 


Mental Health Ministry: Color Your Holiday!

12-6 MHMFall, 2014 Mental Health Ministry Summit

How Are You Going to Color Your Holidays?

Saturday, December 6th, 9:00 am to Noon at UUS:E

Join us for food, art, conversation, planning and support! All are welcome. The UUS:E Mental Health Ministry Summit is designed for everyone, though it focuses on people who live with a mental illness; people who have lived with a mental illness and are now in recovery; people who live with or care for a family member or friend who has a mental illness; and people who provide caring, support and other services to people with mental illness. This will be a great event to help kick off the holiday season! Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 652-8961 or [email protected].

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.