Growing up, I didn’t know what “mental health issues” were. I knew of families that had children and siblings who were institutionalized for schizophrenia and other unnamed mental disorders. But the generally held assumption was that if you couldn’t see it (like a broken bone) it must not be all that bad. Depression was what happened when someone was down on their luck. It happened to people who made poor choices or had no friends. It never occurred to me that depression wasn’t something someone could just fix on their own.
The first time I heard mental health talked about publically was in 1972. George McGovern had just been nominated by the Democratic Party as presidential candidate. McGovern had chosen Thomas Eagleton to be his Vice President. Days after the appointment, Eagleton stepped down (or was forced down) when it was revealed that he struggled with depression.
As a twelve-year old, I thought: “Make note to self - If you ever have a problem, do not tell anyone and do not seek help. Otherwise, it will come back to haunt you.”
When Vince Foster, then Deputy White House Counsel for President Bill Clinton’s administration, took his life and it was revealed that he struggled with depression, I used my earlier mental note to try and make sense of his death. One explanation of his suicide that made sense to me was that perhaps he had not sought the help he needed because it would come up in a vetting process or when seeking to gain security clearance.
Since that time, mental health issues have become an increasingly central part of my own life, and my life as a parent, a spouse, a friend, a colleague, and a minister. As someone who aspired to and was trained to help people, I became more and more aware that I had no awareness or skill set to respond or be helpful to myself or others. As a seminary-trained, ordained minister, I feel a deep sense of disappointment in myself for being so unaware for so long.
That feeling began to change when I met a Violet Ricker last year, then an incoming seminary student at McCormick Seminary. When discussing her vision for the fellowship she had just received, she declared that Mental Health Justice is where she wanted to focus her energies. When Violet and I were discussing the role she might play at the Center for Faith and Service, we discussed the idea of mental health justice - it was the first time someone had connected mental health and justice for me.
For years, I’d focused so much on the injustices I could see, instead of really listening to what others said or how they were feeling. Recognizing mental health as a social justice issue has helped me reframe my notion of what it means to seek “justice for all.” Of course, what we mean must include those who are deeply impacted by mental health issues (whether their own or those of a loved one).
Ricker, who hopes to become a United Methodist Pastor, came to seminary with a passion and a mission to advocate for mental health justice, particularly as it relates to the church. Early next month, she and her peers will hold a conference that will invite other seminarians, church leaders, and mental health activists and advocates to bring this issue to light. I sat down with Violet this week to ask her a few questions about how she sees the church’s role in mental health justice. (For more information about the conference, or to register, www.faith3.org/mentalhealth/)
Q: How do you define mental health justice?
A: Mental health justice will exist when all people have equal access to affordable, professional mental healthcare and feel comfortable seeking it out because treatment for mental illness is understood as just as important as professional treatment for physical illness. Today too many people don’t have access to life changing and life-saving professional mental healthcare either because there aren’t services in their community, they don’t have information about mental health, or mental healthcare is so stigmatized that people do not seek help. Mental health is a social justice issue because white, high income people have less stigma and more access to care, while people of color and lower income people often live in communities where care is highly stigmatized and it is very difficult to find services. This often leads to people reaching crisis points in mental illness and the result being homelessness or imprisonment. The Cook County jail in Chicago is the nation’s largest mental healthcare provider because there are not enough services available to people outside of the prison system.
Q: How do you think the church, nationally and locally fail to address mental health issues? How do you see this playing itself out?
A: One in five people are affected by a mental health condition every year. We know that recovery is possible, and that it’s much easier in a supportive community [where people] talk openly about mental illness. Imagine how much harder it would be to cope with a cancer diagnosis if you didn’t have people to talk about it with, or people to visit you in the hospital, or a support group of people who’d been there and knew what you were going through. Many churches are silent on the issue of mental health, and that’s doing very real damage. The most tragic problem is pastors who encourage people to “pray away” a mental illness. Imagine if your pastor told you to “pray away” a broken arm! How would that make you feel about the church’s potential for compassion or relevance? I feel strongly that the churches and seminaries who lead on mental health education and advocacy are the ones who will be growing and making a difference in the future.
Q: Where are churches doing good work in the area of mental health justice? Any specific places?
A great book with some examples and ideas is Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church by Amy Simpson. (I’m still in the process of researching congregations and their programs and don’t have a lot of info on this yet. I will keep looking for places that I think are doing this really well with inclusive theology!)
Q: Can you think of things that you hope local congregations will do to welcome, embrace and support people with mental health challenges?
A: The number one thing churches can do is to empower people to share their stories. The more we talk about mental illness, the more we make people feel like they are not alone and normalize seeking help and medical care. This could be as simple as the pastor talking about mental illness during a sermon or inviting a congregation member to share their story. It’s important that people share stories of recovery and how they are coping, which demonstrates to the congregation that recovery is possible! Talking for the first time about mental illness can be challenging, so we encourage people to do that with a professional therapist rather than in front of the church, and to speak publicly when they are ready. Pastors should have lists of local mental health resources that they put on the church website or in the bulletin. If you’re not sure where to start, contact 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or www.Faith3.org/mentalhealth. On April 3rd, Ricker and her colleagues will launch a Mental Health Toolkit to empower congregations to act during Mental Health Month in May.