Creating Living Room

A journey toward peer support for people with mood disorders

by Marja Bergen

One in four people will, at some time of their life, have a mental illness. Christians like myself and many others are not exempt.

Psychosis became a part of my life when I was 19, at the time I entered university. I lost touch with reality and became paranoid. My world was a scary place. Today, at 66, I still have a mental disorder, now diagnosed as bipolar, or manic depression. Thank God, psychosis has not bothered me for many years now, but this disease will always be with me in spite of the medications that help keep the symptoms in check.

Too often, individuals who have a mental illness and their church friends mistakenly think it’s the result of a spiritual problem and they are blamed for it. That’s a shame because our faith is important to uphold us, no matter what kind of trouble we’re in. Church should be one of the most important places for Christians with mental health issues to find support.

I’ve had a mental illness all my adult life, but God has been good. I turned my heart over to Jesus when I was 40, a decision that made a huge difference for me. By trusting God and through the support of my church friends, I found the strength to survive my frequent mood swings. Not only that, I learned to have the courage to speak openly about my mental health problems, to educate, and to try and make a difference for people with illnesses like mine. This is what led to creating Living Room, a faith-based support ministry for people with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders.

During a Good Friday service six years ago, I read a piece from A Firm Place to Stand, the book I was working on at the time. I told the congregation about some of the emotional problems I had experienced. To my surprise, a number of people came to me afterward, telling me about some of their own struggles. They found I was someone they could safely talk to. I was someone who would have compassion, because I also had suffered.

And me? I felt just like Patch Adams in the movie when he was a physician in a psychiatric hospital. He discovered he had an ability to connect to people there and it made them well. I, like Patch, was able to say, “I connected to another human being. I want to do more of that. I want to learn about people. I want to help them with their troubles. I want to really listen to people.”

Not long after, I went to my pastor and told him I wanted to start a support group for people with mood disorders, a Christ-centered group. A few months later the first Living Room group was born as an outreach of our church.

One of the things that motivated me was that there were many secular support groups for people with mood disorders, but at these groups discussion about God was not welcomed. I know that at church Bible studies, people suffering from depression or other emotional problems often don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health issues. After all, shouldn’t Christians always be joyful? That’s often the expectation that’s placed on us, isn’t it? Christians don’t always understand.

We need peer support groups that are facilitated by people who themselves have lived with such an illness. We need places where people can safely talk—openly and authentically—about what they’re experiencing. People who are hurting need a place where they won’t be judged, but accepted, no matter where they are emotionally or spiritually, a place where they will be encouraged in their faith and reminded of God’s unconditional and immeasurable love. People with emotional illness need a place where they can go, not only find support, but also to be a support to others.

Living Room offers such a place.

We created manuals and a website. Articles were published about us and we were featured on a Christian television program. As a result of publicity like this there are now 14 groups, most of them in Canada, though we are praying for a greater presence in the United States as well as other countries. The need is great—everywhere.

Living Room meetings vary in style. There are evening and daytime groups. The one at my church has an interactive devotional time when we have discussions about topics important to us, always in light of what we deal with in our lives and reflecting on how God can help. We might focus on God’s gift of grace, avoiding isolation, or accepting our illness. Then we have an open sharing time where people have an opportunity to talk about whatever might be happening for them, how they’re dealing with it, their joys and their pains. We close the meeting with prayer for each person there. As we head home we have a sense that God has been in our midst.

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