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Mental Health and People of Faith - Responding in a Time of Crisis

by Rev. Barbara F. Meyers, a UU Community Minister with a mental health ministry, Chair of the EA Policy Committee, Chair of the EA Mental Health Caucus

Recent tragic events sush as those in Tucson, Arizona, Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut have spawned public debate about mental health, since it has been suggested that the gunman, Jared Loughner has a mental illness. In much of the publicity, there is a presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence, a link that is entrenched in the public consciousness by the consistent over-reporting of crimes by people with mental illnesses. There have been studies that try and quantify the link between mental illness and violence. The results of the studies show that although some mental disorders (anti-social personality disorder and the acute stage of some psychotic disorders) do have aggression and violence as possible symptoms, using alcohol and drugs is a much more reliable predictor of violent behavior than is mental disorder. It is only when a mentally ill person abuses alcohol and illegal drugs that they are somewhat more likely than a non-mentally ill person to be violent. Mentally ill people are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence. By any factual measure, the vast majority of violent acts are committed by people without a mental disorder.

There are other harmful stereotypes of people who are mentally ill, among them: that somehow their agony is comical; that they are weak if they seek help; that they can't recover; that they have nothing to contribute to society; that their spiritual experiences aren't valid.

How do we respond to the situation where wide-spread belief in stereotypes is harmful to many people in society. It can lead to people being reluctant to seek help for a possible illness, help which for most people could lead to recovery. It can lead to ostracizing people who are so in need of positive personal connections. It can lead to much suffering in silence by families who have a loved one who is mentally ill. Here is a 3-point plan that we, as people of faith to reflect and act on this situation.

  1. Education. Become educated about mental illness. Resources to help in education include:
    • The website of my mental health ministry. On the website, there is information about the Caring Congregation curriculum written to educate congregations about mental health.
    • Mental Health Ministries a website by a Methodist minister with many resources, study guides, and videos about mental health.
    • Pathways to Promise a website for ministry to people and families with mental illness with many faith traditions represented.
    • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Originated by parents of children with severe mental illness, NAMI has become the premiere mental health advocacy organization. NAMI has issued several statements responding to situations of violence such as Tucson, Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut that you can read on their website.
    • For more organizations and websites, see: mental health websites.
  2. Reflection. Consider how we as people of faith should respond to this situation. Here are some questions for suggested reflection:
    • Is perpetuating a false stereotype counter to the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist faith: Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person?
    • What should I do when I read or hear a false stereotype about a mentally ill person? What should our congregation do? What should our denomination do?
    • What does our theology tell us about this situation? In particular, our principles of Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
  3. Action. Once we are grounded in fact and in faith, we can take action. Here are some activities that have been undertaken by other churches:
    • Provide a support group for family members and a group for mental health clients either in the congregation, or by referrals to other groups in the community.
    • Provide the full range ministry to those who have a mental disorder as you do to others, including pastoral care. This includes visiting people hospitalized in the psychiatric ward.
    • Get connected with mental health organizations, for example NAMI's national organization and local affiliates. Participate in the annual NAMI Walk which raises funds for local efforts.
    • Offer church services on mental health topics
    • Establish guidelines for appropriate behavior in church for all people.

I came to this faith shortly after having a serious psychiatric illness. The people of that church helped heal me. We have a very healing message and theology that we need to learn how to live out in complex and challenging situations.

Other viewpoints from the Mental Health Community:

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