Being Jesus to the mentally ill

Symposium helps churches understand, respond to suffering souls

By Jessica Brodie

SUMTER—In his time on earth, Jesus ministered not only to the sick and the sinful, but also to those tormented by mental calamities.

Now, as mental illness, substance use disorders and suicide are on the rise, some churches in South Carolina are stepping up to learn how they, too, can be the hands and feet of Jesus to people in need.

On Aug. 16, the Hartsville District hosted a free mental illness symposium, “Clothed in My Right Mind: Mental Illness Prescriptions for Healing and Wholeness,” in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Held at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, the daylong symposium featured four facilitators speaking on a variety of mental health topics, including destigmatizing mental illness, how the church can help with trauma and grief, addictions and their relationship to mental illness, and suicide prevention.

“This is a very, very important issue we all face on a daily basis, some more than others,” said Aldersgate pastor the Rev. David Day, noting how mental illness has touched his own family. His late father struggled with depression and was institutionalized in the 1950s.

Dr. Robin Dease, Hartsville District superintendent, lifted up the example Christ gives us in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus called demons out of a man so tortured he was living among the tombs and restored the man to his senses (Mark 5:1-20). But while Jesus cared and loved the man enough to heal him, Jesus-followers today don’t always do the same.

“We tend to separate people who are not ‘in their right mind,’” Dease told the roomful gathered for the symposium. “But I wonder: why are they not in their right mind? Do they have inadequate money for prescriptions, are they struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from a war, are they in poverty and desperate, did they have a broken-home upbringing, were they an immigrant and treated like an animal, were they bullied?”

Dease added, “In our country, many mentally ill people suffer and die because of our failure to be in community and walk alongside them. Just like cancer, mental illness is a disease that requires treatment.”

And just like we do when someone gets a cancer diagnosis, Dease said, our role as followers of Christ is to find out how to be the hands and feet of Jesus to help some soul find healing and wholeness.

Ending the stigma

The stigma and fear of mental illness is one barrier to helping people, said symposium speaker Zenethia Brown, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Mid-Carolina, which works to bring understanding, support and resources to people living with mental illness.

Brown, who herself suffers with depression and anxiety, said it takes awareness and compassion from people, including churches, to help the mentally ill cope and survive. Untreated and isolated, some people with mental illness eventually take their own lives out of a drive to end the desperation and pain. In South Carolina, Brown said, suicide is a leading cause of death for children ages 10-14.

But through awareness and support, the church and its people can be a stopgap.

“Mental health and illness is something we don’t talk about enough,” Brown said, noting, “We treat ailments of the body different from ailments of the mind.”

But you can’t pound sanity into someone, she said.

“You have to meet people where they are.”

NAMI and other groups offer support groups for those struggling with mental illness and for their support system. Schools and workplaces often offer resources such as counselors, which can easily and effectively be utilized.

Also, Brown said, there is much we can do on a personal level. If you or someone you know has a mental illness, reduce the stigma and call it what it is. Understand that medication can help. And if you notice suicide warning signs, or if someone you know says they want to hurt themselves, don’t dismiss it as “just wanting attention.” Talk to them. Reassure them: don’t do it, you’ll be missed. Ask if they have a plan.

“It might be a call for help or them just wanting reassurance and attention, but you don’t know,” Brown said.

Embracing the grief

Trauma and grief also tie into mental illness and are another way the church can help bring hurting people to wholeness and healing.

Symposium speaker Jeremiah Page, a board-certified clinical chaplain and pastoral counselor who also pastors Pageland UMC, Pageland, frequently works with people suffering from trauma and grief, helping guide them to and through the stages of the grieving process so they can learn how to cope.

Page said grief comes after the loss of something close to a person’s heart and can stem from miscarriage and death to divorce or loss of employment.

While everyone grieves differently, Page said it is important to know the five major stages of grief and guide people experiencing grief to experience each of those phases.

The phases are denial (shock, numbness and overwhelming disbelief about the loss), anger (a healthy reaction that shows you feel pain, shows that you loved and have lost), bargaining (often, this is guilt—if only I’d been there, if only I’d done this or that), depression (debilitating sadness) and acceptance (recognizing the reality as permanent and your new normal).

“Grief is like a bill—it’s not going anywhere till you pay it,” Page said. “But embracing the grief will allow you to move through the process and get to your new normal.”

Page said the church must listen with empathy to people in grief and to not necessarily reply or respond.

“It’s their grief, not yours. Let them grieve. Giving your undivided attention is one of the greatest acts of love,” Page said.

Helping people grieve can involve support groups, grief groups, pastoral counseling and more.

Other things the church can do are offer prayers, make phone calls and send cards. Also, he said, if you have been through a trauma, don’t be afraid to tell your story and testimony; it’s the ultimate source of hope.

Addiction: A disease of the brain

Symposium speaker Jill Crossgrove, a licensed professional counselor and a state and nationally certified addiction counselor, spoke next about substance use disorders, which can be very common among people with mental illness, as people often turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to help them cope with mental illness.

However, she said, addiction to these substances goes beyond casual use—and beyond choice.

Crossgrove noted that addiction is a malfunction of the brain; it’s a disease. As she illustrated, in a non-addicted, healthy brain, there’s a region of the brain that urges us to do something that feels good and a region that serves as the voice of caution or the brakes, telling us, “Wait, stop—remember the consequences.”

“But with addiction, it’s like the brake lines are cut,” Crossgrove said.

As people of God and as a church, we can support people struggling with addiction in a number of positive ways. While we should avoid giving them money (which can be used in the wrong way), we can provide them with food; talk and listen; help them get treatment; answer the phone and talk to them; love and be honest with them; treat addiction as a chronic disease; and avoid paying for cell phones, cars or gas bills. Also, we should take care not to use alcohol or other drugs around them.

She said people can choose recovery at any time, even if they haven’t hit the proverbial “rock bottom,” and it’s a myth that they must “want” to stop using in order for treatment to help.

“Many people come in kicking and screaming but get so much out of it,” Crossgrove said.

She said relapses happen just like with any disease; it’s a process.

She also said people should understand the best path toward recovery changes from person to person, whether that’s through inpatient 28-day treatment, support groups or stopping one drug at a time on their own.

“Look at world through their eyes,” Crossgrove said, lifting up a quote she likes: “You don’t get over an addiction by stopping using. You recover by creating a new life where it’s easier not to use. If you don’t create a new life, then all the factors that brought you to your addiction will catch up to you again.”

Given that, she said, the church can play a big role in helping people develop that new life,

providing support, friendship and groups like Celebrate Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as talking openly about addiction and our family members’ stories.

Open and honest discussion

The final symposium speaker, Rob Cottingham of South Carolina Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative, spoke candidly about suicide prevention and suicidal thoughts.

He struggled with mental health when he was younger, but when he was 16, he lost his uncle to suicide. While before he’d had suicidal thoughts on occasion, once he faced the reality of suicide in his family, he knew he would never put his family through that again.

He said society and the church need to begin looking at suicide from a medical perspective, something that is not shameful to discuss.

“Like a heart that can go into crisis, the brain can, too, and sometimes that results in a suicide attempt,” Cottingham said. “It’s not about death; it’s about ending the pain.”

Cottingham said there are almost always warning signs: people start thinking about it and then planning it. When we see the signs in a friend or a fellow church member, we should address it immediately.

He cited a few statistics: a young person dies every 2.08 hours (ages 15-24); suicide attempts saw a 43 percent increase in last few years (ages 10-24) in South Carolina; suicide deaths are up 17.5 percent over the last five years for youths age 10-24; suicide is the No. 2 killer of youth ages 10-24 (second only to car accidents); and 45,000 died to suicide in 2016 (13,000 more than homicide).

He said more people die by self-inflicted gun wounds than from other people who shot them, and more than half (54 percent) didn’t have a known mental health condition.

“It’s better to lose a friendship than a friend,” Cottingham said, urging open and honest discussion.

The Advocate plans to increase its coverage of mental illness and how the church can help address it. If you have a story you would like to share about a ministry or church outreach effort, email Brodie at [email protected].

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