You are not alone: Anderson District conference empowers churches to help mentally ill

By Jessica Brodie

EASLEY—When it comes to mental illness, the church has a job to do—one modeled by Jesus and carried out in the love, resources, support and programs

That was the key message lifted up at a district-wide mental health conference March 30 at Bethesda United Methodist Church. Called “There Is No Health Without Mental Health: The Role of the Church in Addressing Mental Illness,” the conference was sponsored by Anderson District and District Connectional Ministries and featured a full day of awareness, education and other tools for Christians hoping to reach out to those hurting in the community.

Conference coordinator Peggy Dulaney, a psychiatric-mental health clinical nurse specialist and faith community nurse, said the church can be excellent at caring for people with physical and spiritual needs, but people often don’t know what to do to help people struggling with mental health issues, so they do nothing.

The goal of the conference was to change that “nothing” to “something” by raising awareness of mental health needs, decreasing the stigma of mental illness and identifying community resources for churches, those dealing with mental illness and their caregivers.

“One of the big takeaway messages of the conference is that there is help for persons experiencing mental health concerns,” said Anderson District Superintendent the Rev. Steve Patterson, who was on the conference’s planning committee with Dulaney and others. “One doesn't have to pretend everything is OK, go through it alone or feel ashamed. Every church has access to local resources of assistance.”

‘We are all affected’

The day began with a welcome from Patterson and Bethesda’s pastor, the Rev. Dan Batson, then plenary sessions from a host of mental health advocates on everything from the role of the church in addressing mental illness and breaking stigmas to contributing factors, addiction, grief and more.

Plenary leader Dr. Robin Dease, Hartsville District superintendent, spoke on Jesus’s healing of the man in the tombs (Mark 5) to illustrate how Jesus saw, cared, loved and healed the man and challenged us to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those living with mental illness in our midst.

Ken Dority, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Greenville, spoke on how many people feel mental illness is a defect or a mark of shame, and the consequence leads to fear, avoidance and lack of understanding. He shared how one of the key ways to reduce stigma is to share stories of the lived experience of mental illness.

Dority said in 50 percent of the cases where someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, symptoms began by the age of 14, and in 75 percent of the cases, symptoms were apparent by age 24. However, the average delay between the onset of symptoms and people getting help is eight to 10 years, which can cause a host of problems, much like an oncologist only getting to treat people with Stage 4 cancer.

“One in 5 are afflicted by mental illness, but we all are affected by it,” Dority said.

Dulaney lifted up Psalm 139:14, which says people are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and “wonderfully complex,” and those complexities often include mental illness. She noted multiple factors that can contribute to mental illness, from biological factors such as heredity, chemical dysfunction, toxic levels of stress in those who experience trauma or brain injury, living with chronic pain, adverse childhood experiences such as sexual harassment or bullying, and more.

“The church has an opportunity to be a supportive community in all of these situations,” Dulaney said.

Addictions counselor Jill Crossgrove spoke above the relationship between addiction and mental illness and what the church can do to help, lifting up the ways churches can help foster recovery by creating a new life in Christ and through various support programs. She encouraged churches to offer 12-step programs and talk openly about the problems of addiction. She also talked about the impact of labels, noting that instead of saying someone is “a recovering addict or alcoholic,” to say that the person has a “substance use disorder” or is “in long-term recovery.”

And Patterson talked about the grief process and how it can be very different for different people. Using Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” as the basis for his remarks, Patterson described grief as similar to a spiritual/emotional concussion. If we don’t attend to it, there can be long-term negative consequences.

‘We want more’

After lunch, breakout sessions were offered on suicide prevention (Susan Smyre Haire, Mental Health America), child/youth mental health and the schools (JoBeth Manley, school counselor, Greenville County Schools), dementia (author and retired Bishop Kenneth L. Carder), mental health first aid (Toni Taylor, certified coach and trainer), depression (Vanessa Thompson, director of behavioral health services at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center) and sexual abuse (the Rev. Carrie Nettles, victim service specialist with the Julie Valentine Center).

Then, attendees had the opportunity to hear a question and answer panel led by plenary speakers and moderated by the Rev. Cathy Joens, congregational specialist for Anderson and Greenville districts. They also got to browse a number of exhibits for resources, tools and other valuable information and assistance.

“Oftentimes, the success of an event can be evaluated on requests for more. We have clearly heard ‘we want more,’” said planning committee member the Rev. Beverly CroweTipton, pastor of Zion UMC in Anderson and who coordinated the evaluations. “Most of our participants asked for additional opportunities for information and learning, with anxiety and depression as the most requested foci for followup offerings along with the opportunity to attend more breakout sessions.”

She added, “As Christians, we are called to minister to the whole person. For a long time, we’ve been better at responding to spiritual and physical needs. We have some catching up to do with regard to mental health needs.”

Jeff Fogle, Anderson District lay leader, said the conference was very successful.

“It was well attended, which shows that improving mental health is important to United Methodists and our communities,” Fogle said, noting the program was diverse and touched on many types of mental health in response to a real need in the local community. “It is important to spread awareness of mental health as this impacts each of us in some personal way.”

The church at work

Dease closed the day by encouraging participants to take advantage of free training available through the South Carolina Children’s Trust and to celebrate April as child abuse prevention month. She also encouraged churches to open their doors to organizations that offer services to those in need in the community.

This, Dease said, is the church at work.

Taylor, an ambassador for Circles South Carolina who not only led a breakout session but also served on the conference’s planning committee, said the question now is how we as United Methodists can develop a ministry focused on these issues and find ways to help those in need.

“We all know someone who has experienced mental health issues. The mental health of our churches is linked to the mental health of our congregations and the surrounding community,” Taylor said.

Exhibitors included the Julie Valentine Center, which helps in situations of child abuse and sexual abuse; National Alliance on Mental Illness, which offers education, support and advocacy for patients and families dealing with mental illness; Mental Health America, which offers crisis hotlines for suicide prevention and support for survivors of suicide; SC Thrive, which offers mental health first aid training across SC and supports individuals who need to access various benefits; Safe Harbor, providing domestic violence services and education; Family Caregiver Support, which provides information and services to assist unpaid caregivers of persons with mental health issues; Thomas McAfee Funeral Homes, which offers grief support and education; and FAVOR (Faces and Voices of Recovery), offering education and support services for persons dealing with addiction and their families.

In addition to those mentioned above, planning committee members included JoBeth Manley, Judith Polson, Dan Batson, Danny Thompson, George Donigian, Gwendolyn Brown, Brenda Durham, Carol Burdette and Stephen Turner.

With much information from Peggy Dulaney.

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