Saturday, September 15, 2007

Helping a church become supportive

Susan Bernard's last post prompts me to talk a bit about how my church became as supportive as it has towards people with mental health problems. In the comments Susan and Sydney say how they wish they could find a place of worship like mine. I'm hoping that this post will help you understand that this support has only grown gradually, over time. I had to educate members of the congregation and they needed to have time to get to know me and come to understand what my illness does to me.

When I first started going to this church, I too felt lonely. It took time to get to know people and start feeling comfortable. But there was one woman who took it on herself to talk to me Sunday mornings. She invited me to a ladies' group she led and I came to know people there. Because of the heart-felt discussions we had, I ended up telling them about my mental health problems.

Soon after I started attending, I decided to visit the pastor. I wanted him to know of my problems. If anything were to go wrong with me I wanted him to be aware. I wanted him to understand. I gave him a copy of Riding the Roller Coaster, telling him how I wanted to help reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. Several months later I had a meeting with him and his wife and gave them a gift of a photograph I made, together with a story I wrote describing how I found God. We talked a little more about my disorder and the three of us prayed together. My pastor always asked God to help him learn more about mental illness through me. (pretty neat, eh?)

Being a big letter writer, I ended up emailing my pastor often when I was going through my moods. I tend to be a very spiritual person and have a great need to express my feelings about God and how I experience him (as you have seen on this blog). My pastor came to know me quite well. Many emails went to my ladies' group leader as well. She ended up becoming my best friend, my best supporter, my sister, my mother, my mentor - all rolled into one. These two individuals have helped me grow in a huge way.

At church, occasional readings about my life followed. My struggles were now common knowledge. Yet I had lots of friends. I loved them and I felt loved in return. After one of my readings, a number of church members came up to me and shared some of their own problems with me. It felt good to connect in that way. I wanted people like these to have a place where they could freely share more of their pain with others who would understand. And so the plan for a Living Room support group was born.

Today, when someone in the church is known to have an emotional problem, they are introduced to me because it is believed that I will understand and be able to give support. (It happens very frequently.) I'm not sure how I feel about that. I do like supporting people, but somehow I wish that some of the healthier people would not be afraid to do the supporting as well.

The wonderful thing is this: with Living Room as an important part of our ministry, people in our church are less worried about being open about their mental health struggles. Living Room is often talked about. I don't think people feel too much shame being connected with it. I know I don't. And I think in turn, others don't either. This is what true church support should look like.


Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

It's nice to learn about the background of your group and how you developed relationships with fellow congregants.

Now that I'm mostly well, I prefer blogging about bipolar issues to discussing them in person. When I was very sick, I just felt it would have been nice to have experienced compassion and understanding-- particularly from those people who knew about my illness.

Still, thanks for sharing!


marja said...

Susan, My only reason for going into such detail was that I wanted to show how a compassionate congregation doesn't just magically appear. It's developed - in large part by the leadership of a few people who do understand and are compassionate.

I've been wondering lately if it's possible to develop compassion and understanding in people who haven't been there. I've even been working on writing some articles that I hope would teach people to be more understanding.

But I wonder if this is possible. What do you think, Susan?

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

I think your point about one person taking the lead to influence others is an important one.

I certainly hope it is possible to teach compassion and empathy. I believe that one of the difficulties with "mental illness" is the terrible stigma and thus "fear" that it engenders.

With depression, I think many people still believe that if depressed people would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps--so to speak--they'd feel better.

As I write all this, I realize it's too complex for me to answer as a comment, so I'll post about it next week.

Perhaps others who have read our exchange will post as well. I believe it's an important and interesting discussion.

Thanks for bringing it up!


Syd said...


Thanks for sharing your story about how you came to help your congregation grow in their understanding of and compassion towards meantal health issues. I admire your courage and your persistence. I can only imagine that this was not always an easy task.

I'm curious, how large is your church? And what denomination?

I've been involved in various degress in a number of churches and unfortunately, have rarely found the kind of genuine love and support that you write about often in any of them, and mental health issues weren't even on the table. I found that there was usually a very close-knit group of church members who either had been in the church for a long time through all of its growth and change, or they were people who knew each other outside of church - perhaps they were neighbors or their children had grown up together.

While the "cornerstones" of these churches tended to be friendly on the surface, it was very difficult to feel a connection. It was sort of like switching schools in the middle of your senior year when all the groups of friends are well-entrenched.

As I've written on my blog, for some reason, I never feel lonelier these days than I do when I go to church. Of course I feel God's presence there so I'm not truly alone, but I feel his presence at home and in my car too. It's feeling emotionally and spiritually isolated in the one place where I'd hope to feel conected that causes such intense loneliness.

At some point, I hope to be able to get the strength to go through the process of "church shopping" again and that I'll be blessed to find a truly loving church like yours.


Mel Avila Alarilla said...

It's wonderful that your church has understood and supported you in your efforts to educate others regarding mental illnesses and their effects on people. It's also wonderful that you got a support group in propagating your Living Room project. God bless you more for these noble endeavors. Have nice day.