No Whispers

Caregiving for mental illness

by Cynthia Davis

No one should have to whisper about mental health disorders.”

Kay Warren came to Memphis from California, where she shares with her husband the ministry of the well-known Saddleback Church, and spoke these words. At Christ United Methodist Church, we were holding our second annual Mental Health Breakfast, where she told the story of losing their precious son Matthew to suicide and how painful it was for their family. Long before his death, they hurt along with him while he struggled with mental illness. We knew we wanted to do more to minister to people in our own community who struggled with mental health and adopted the CHURCH model Saddleback Church uses.

C = Care about the issues.
H = Help with practical needs.
U = Utilize volunteers.
R = Remove the stigma.
C = Collaborate with others in the community.
H = Offer Hope.

Our senior pastor, Shane Stanford, hosted two gatherings—one in his home and one at the church—where he talked about a vision of creating a ministry where people would have a safe, confidential and informative place to share their pain.

The need for help with mental health is great. One out of four people will struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives, and the statistics are not any different in churches. We can’t escape it, but we can bear one another’s burdens with compassion. We can care when we share our hurts and pain. Because of the size of our church—over 5,000 members—hundreds of people within our own congregation could be struggling or have a family member who struggles. We weren’t reaching everyone with care for this specific need. Too many of our families or friends suffer with a mental disorder, and we’ve kept it a secret for too long.

One of the roles of the church is to let them know that Jesus already knows and it’s okay to acknowledge the brokenness and pain.

It was an embarrassment. We didn’t think of the brain as being an organ like the heart, lungs or pancreas. If someone was hospitalized, people signed up to make sure they had meals during the recovery period. We didn’t do that if the health need related to mental illness. People suffered in silence. Even when they needed a meal, a hug or affirmation or someone to pray for them, they suffered in silence. When they had to call the police because of violence erupting in their homes, they suffered in silence. In the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep and their loved one was out of control and they didn’t know who to call, they suffered in silence.

Mental illness is one of the top five priorities for our county. We made caring about mental health a priority because it affects almost every family in some way, from bullying to alcohol and substance abuse, to depression and anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders to suicidal thoughts, we all know someone with a mental or emotional challenge. Because Jesus cares for us, we must care for one another.

From Whispers to Stories

The stigma is pervasive. People still whisper. People are more comfortable talking in person in the privacy of a confidential office than sharing their stories where others might hear them. We try to make it safe for people to tell their stories, such as from the pulpit or in a Sunday school class, so that others will feel it is safe to tell theirs. But it takes time. This is a difficult area for people to let down their walls. Mental illness has been a shameful topic for many generations. We’re trying to come at it from as many directions as possible to create a culture where people become used to hearing—and eventually telling—their stories.
I share my story of a panic attack the very first time I preached. I’ve been trying to share the importance of No Whispers in small groups where people may share more intimately. I’m also looking for opportunities to add small groups, such as a morning group. My husband, Sonny, has a background in psychotherapy and will be part of our team and help facilitate a group specifically for men struggling with depression. Several individuals have agreed to tell their stories on video. In addition to the annual Mental Health Breakfast, we’re organizing Lunch and Learn following worship on designated Sundays to focus specifically on topics that impact family, such as children and behavioral challenges, stress and caring for family members with chronic illness and memory loss. We’ll also offer a conference on “The Face of Forgiveness: A Pastoral Theology of Shame and Redemption.”

Stories are a powerful tool, both for people who suffer from mental illness and the people who live with and care for them. We tell our stories in support groups. We tell stories in sermons and Bible studies. We tell stories on video. We want people to know they are not on this journey alone. Someone else is walking it with you! We’re inviting those in support groups to write letters to the congregation (which we hope to use as a bulletin insert) to tell them what to say and not say to those who are struggling with a mental illness. Also, they can say how important it is for someone to say, “I will pray for you.” Stories make the teller vulnerable and the listener humble. Little by little, people have found venues where they can share their deepest hurts, disappointments and frustrations. Sometimes it’s because they have almost reached the breaking point and need a place to have a conversation. Sometimes they need someone to listen. My role is specifically dedicated to this work. People feel they have a safe place to come, even if they don’t come to a group meeting.

We have support groups both for people living with mental illness and those who love and care for them. Caregivers end up with their own struggles that tap their reserves. Sometimes caring for others cause the caregiver to need additional support with the stress of work and food preparation, doctor visits and medication regulation, toileting and bathing a family member, change in living situations, and the pain of being blamed for all that goes wrong. Caregivers can have anger, disappointment, frustration and their own depression. They need to be supported and encouraged in their journey as well. It can be a financial struggle if caring for someone with mental illness requires expensive medications, multiple inpatient and outpatient visits, law enforcement intervention and the shame of having someone know your situation is that desperate.

Holy and Beloved

God cares for all the brokenness of humanity. Multiple Scripture passages show God’s deep concern for those who had not only physical but emotional or mental challenges. Elijah was so discouraged he asked that he might die, saying “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). David had several episodes of depression. Reading the Psalms is a good indication of the times the writer struggled in deep anguish. We see fear, even panic, in Moses when he was to go before Pharaoh. Jesus cured many with various diseases, not only those with visible physical disorders but those who manifested behavioral and emotional disorders as well.

Three emotions that people in caregiving roles feel guilty about and believe others will judge them for are anger, resentment, and a need to be forgiven for feeling the way they do about their loved ones. One of the roles of the church is to let them know that Jesus already knows and it’s okay to acknowledge the brokenness and pain in their situation. Jesus had compassion on all those he healed, and the caregiver is in need of healing as well. Sometimes caregivers feel guilty for leaving their loved ones to take a much needed respite, even just for an hour or two. It might look like they are not fully committed. Sometimes they are too overwhelmed to take up the offer to allow someone else to care for their loved one. Sometimes they are depressed and can’t see any solutions to their dilemma. Being available, listening well, showing empathy, building a trusting relationship, and consistency can go a long way. Caregiving can be difficult, all-consuming, and the largest challenge one has ever undertaken. Caregiving also can be humbling, gentle, kind and compassionate.

I love what Colossians 3:12–13 says: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness and humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.”

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