Church makes space for mental healing with healthy minds team

By Jessica Brodie

TRAVELERS REST—Mickey Hess knows what it’s like to navigate mental illness alone. For decades, he experienced depression struggles within his family, but he kept it all quiet, not even daring to admit it to himself. Tragedies were never discussed in his circles, and there was a cloak of secrecy around mental health.

“It was never talked about, never shared,” Hess said.

But over the years, after two major depressive episodes and the loss of a son who’d also struggled with depression and anxiety, Hess began to open up and understand the importance of awareness and sharing as a part of mental, spiritual and emotional healing.

One day, his pastor asked whether he’d consider leading a new support group at his church, Travelers Rest United Methodist Church, for people and their loved ones struggling with mental health issues.

Now, the Healthy Minds Team is more than three years in and going strong. More than a mental health support group, Hess said, it’s a compassionate mind-health team filled with caring and honest believers who surround each other with love and encouragement—and a listening ear.

“It’s all about healthy comfort, healthy confidentiality, healthy communication and healthy community,” Hess said, and all of it in a church setting.

The Healthy Minds Team is one way churches are beginning to support their members with awareness and supportive environments to foster conversation and healing around mental health. As mental health issues become more prevalent, and more talked about, the need is strong. The National Institute for Mental Health estimates nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (52.9 million in 2020), whether anxiety, depression, bipolar or other issues.

At TRUMC, Hess and his team embrace Ephesians 4:23 as their banner verse. Penned by the apostle Paul, it emphasizes being made new in the attitude of our minds.

“That seemed to me to really give us an anchor there for our group and say, ‘OK, we’re a Christian mind-health team,” Hess said.

After all, the concept of mental health is supported throughout Scripture, from what is going on within a person to the relationships they have with others.

On the first Sunday of every month, the group of nearly a dozen men and women gather after the second church service for a time of listening, learning and a healthy meal.

They have started working their way through the Living Grace resource from the Mental Health Grace Alliance, and they also make sure every member gets a chance to talk about their struggles and other needs on their mind. Individuals, couples and one family participates right now, and more are welcome any time.

“It’s been extremely well received,” said Pat Hansen, a nurse and member of TRUMC. While she’s not in the group, she has steered a number of people to it and appreciates what the group says about the church’s emphasis on mental health and awareness.

“Having that group has kind of established a stake in the ground that we (at TRUMC) are committed to this,” Hansen said.

The Rev. Jonathan Tompkins, lead pastor at TRUMC, said the Healthy Minds Team is the fruit of their congregation’s effort to focus on mental and emotional health.

“Several years ago, we at TRUMC made an intentional commitment to bring mental and emotional health to the forefront of what it means to be a disciple of Christ,” Tompkins said.

After a sermon series on emotionally healthy spirituality, based on a book by Peter Scazzero, Tompkins said Hess started the group.

Tompkins said the Healthy Minds Team is “a vital and life-giving source of God's grace, Christ's peace and the Holy Spirit's healing and wholeness for our church and community.”

Ashley Gutschow, a Stephen Minister at TRUMC, said the Healthy Minds Team has been a huge benefit to the church. As someone with Bipolar II disorder, Gutschow said she is now in a healthy place in her life and has a second chance at life, and she helps with the Healthy Minds Team as a way of giving back and helping others who might not have the access to the resources she does.

“The Healthy Minds Team gives our church a space to say, ‘You’re not weird if you have depression; if you have bipolar you are not alone,’” Gutschow said.

It’s so important to have a space to go seek support if you have mental illness, and the fact that it’s in a church—which naturally focuses on wholeness in Christ—is tremendous, she added.

Hess agreed, noting the entire church has been incredibly supportive of the Healthy Minds Team.

“It’s just good to have a place you can go and not be judged, not be reprimanded, that’s just sharing in complete acceptance,” Hess said.

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