Mental health in the church

S.C. UMCs reach out to those struggling with depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, more

By Jessica Connor

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on ways the church ministers to those who are hurting.

SUMTER—Sometimes, the voices in his head get so overwhelming he can barely focus.

Three or four times a day, he asks his father if he’s reading his mind, or whether his father can hear “that lady” out there talking to him. But there is no lady. Christopher Neil Harmon, 41, has schizophrenia, a mental illness he has been struggling with for the past 21 years. He lives with his father and cannot hold a job. If it’s a good day, he’ll manage to take his medication, carry out the garbage and clean the cat litter. If it’s a bad day, his father, Fred Harmon, notes, “It’s an ordeal.”

“He has a hard time dealing with reality,” said Harmon, 67, a member of St. John United Methodist Church, Sumter. “He hears people talking to him all the time. He does take antidepressants and antipsychotics to keep the voices down, but lately they haven’t been helping hardly at all. … There’s just so much in his head, and he has to filter all the noise out.”

But thanks to a support group Fred Harmon now leads at St. John, he, his son and others who live with mental illness have a safe place where they can talk, learn coping strategies and get the help they so desperately need.

St. John is one of many UMCs across South Carolina that reaches out to mentally ill people and their families—both church members and those in the surrounding community. At St. John, they not only offer support groups through the local chapter of the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, but also NAMI workshops, such as the current 12-week Family-to-Family education course; an annual candlelight vigil; occasional picnics; and a suicide survivors group. They are also planning a NAMI Homefront course for families of military service members and veterans affected by major mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s very helpful—I learn things from other people, and it makes me feel better about my situation,” Fred Harmon said about the help he gets through the NAMI support at St. John. He said he truly appreciates his church and his pastor, the Rev. Bob Huggins, for opening its doors to help him, his son, and the countless others living with mental illness.

“Jesus tells us to reach out to others and do all we can for them,” Harmon said. “(At the church), we need to reach out, need to keep open doors and provide it for the community.”

Mental illness numbers grow

Across S.C., UMCs and other churches are starting to do more and more to help. After all, a large percentage of the population is struggling with mental illness, and the number continues to grow.

According to 2012 statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 43.7 million Americans ages 18 and older—18.6 percent of the population—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, anything from anxiety and depression to bipolar, schizophrenia, eating disorders and more. Many living with mental illness are “functional”; they can hold a job and live relatively stable lives thanks to medication and other support. Others struggle simply to get out of bed in the morning.

Many S.C. UMCs said they are stepping up to help with services, support groups and other assistance.

The church as refuge

At Trinity UMC, Blythewood, they offer a grief seminar sponsored by Shives Funeral Home that is widely attended by families who are facing mental health issues. Some are dealing with depression, anxiety and trauma associated with grief. Some have lost a mentally ill family member to suicide. The grief seminar offers healing and hope. Trinity is also offering education sessions this month about the current court case, T.R., P.R., K.W., et al. v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, which addresses vastly deficient services for mentally ill inmates in S.C. That case prompted a resolution going before Annual Conference this June, “A Resolution to Support our Neighbors: The Need for Services to Individuals with Mental Illness in the South Carolina Department of Corrections,” submitted by Trinity pastor Dr. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg and Virginia Wingard Memorial UMC pastor the Rev. John Culp.

In the past, Trinity has offered Wednesday night programs on different mental health issues, led by people in the congregation who had personal or professional experience with these issues, with help from counselors and some of Trinity’s Stephen Ministers.

“Mental health issues affect all of us, whether in our family, our church family or the wider community,” said Jamieson-Ogg. “I had a sister with bi-polar disorder who died young because of poor physical and mental health. The church can partner with counselors, parish nurses and Stephen Ministers to offer spiritual, emotional and physical healing for the mentally ill.”

At Central UMC, Florence, they host an ongoing monthly NAMI support group for family members and friends of someone living with a mental illness, and they are also organizing the 12-week NAMI Family-to-Family education course for the fall.

“As a pastor, I feel it is important for the church to reach out and provide help to those struggling with mental illness because it is what Jesus did in his ministry,” said Rev. Josh Blackwelder, Central’s associate pastor. “We are called to be like Jesus. This is one of the ways we can answer that call.”

Trinity UMC, Anderson, hosts a support group for those who have experienced suicide in their family, or the loss of a close friend by suicide. They also have an ongoing grief support group.

Bethel UMC, Wallace, offers a monthly mental health support group, which is held at the local library for convenience; Kristie Short is the organizer.

“There’s a great need in the community,” Short said. “A lot of people are suffering from depression and mental health issues, and they don’t have anywhere else to go for encouragement and help.”

Taking church to those in need

The Rev. John Jordan, pastor of Mount Pleasant UMC, Columbia, and member Betty Bloom have been making it their ministry to visit two nearby community residential care facilities whose residents are mostly persons suffering from mental illness. Since last June, they have been going to the facilities on an alternating basis and providing a worship service, including communion. Other churches do similar outreach.

“We recognized that while the facility meets the basic physical needs and the mental health center meets the mental health needs, no one was addressing the spiritual needs of these residents,” Jordan said. “Also we recognized barriers to residents coming to church, which included lack of transportation, lack of ‘church clothes,’ in addition to barriers of anxiety and discomfort in new situations due to the illness. So rather than just inviting them to come to worship with us, we brought church to them.”

Jordan said their rationale for the outreach was quite simple: “They are our neighbors.”

Connecting the dots

Other churches help play the “middle man” for those in need and the agencies that can help.

At the Rev. Sharon Spann Gamble’s previous appointment, the Lugoff Parish, she said her church did a very effective ministry for a member who suffered from depression and schizophrenia, resulting in a partnership with the Department of Social Services where Gamble’s sister works, to connect the dots between mental health in the county and services to the member, who ultimately was placed in a residential setting.

“Church members were phenomenal taking her to appointments and trying to ensure she had food and her utilities were paid,” Gamble said, noting it was often a very difficult task because the woman often thought they were taking her money or she overpaid bills or used her funds inappropriately. “Matthew 22:37-40 and Matthew 7:12 best describes what Jesus requires us a people of faith should do for one another.”

No more ‘he’ll snap out of it’

As for Harmon’s home church, St. John UMC in Sumter, the Rev. Bob Huggins said he is so pleased his church can reach out to people living with mental illness. Having family members with mental illness and having personally gone through depression himself, Huggins said he knows the struggles people experience.

“For years (talking about mental illness) was taboo, and now we are starting to realize that there’s help out there, and the church is one of the comforting places where a person and families can find some refuge knowing their concern is genuine,” Huggins said. “We care about them, and we want to help. There are not enough agencies out there, and the church needs to be a vital link for people who need a safe haven.”

Harmon agreed: “Mental illness is on the rise … and a lot of people don’t understand it. My mother was in her 80s and 90s, and she used to say, ‘Oh, he’ll snap out of it.’ But he can’t. It’s not a physical illness where you can heal, like a broken arm. With mental illness, it’s mostly recovery.”

And, he said, it takes churches like St. John to provide support for those hurting—and help everyone understand their mentally ill brothers and sisters.

May is mental health month

Learn more about mental illness and mental health this May during national mental health awareness month. Visit,, and other advocacy websites to get educated, find support and learn how to help others. People can also call the NAMI help line at 800-788-5131 for further support and information.

What does the UMC say about mental illness and mental health?

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Unfortunately, mental health eludes many in our world resulting in considerable distress, stigma and isolation.

Mental illness troubles our relationships because it can affect the way we process information, relate to others and choose actions. Consequently, mental illnesses often are feared in ways that other illnesses are not. Nevertheless, we know that regardless of our illness we remain created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

No person deserves to be stigmatized because of mental illness. Those with mental illness are no more violent than other persons are. Rather, they are much more likely to be victims of violence or preyed on by others. When stigma happens within the church, mentally ill persons and their families are further victimized.

Persons with mental illness and their families have a right to be treated with respect on the basis of common humanity and accurate information. They also have a right and responsibility to obtain care appropriate to their condition. The United Methodist Church pledges to foster policies that promote compassion, advocate for access to care and eradicate stigma within the church and in communities.

—Para. 162, Book of Discipline

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