The DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church exists as a beacon of liberal religious thought and practice. Amid the challenges and changes of a chaotic world, we aspire to proclaim and embody the possibilities of meaning in human life, of freedom in human thought, and of peace and justice in human community.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Unbroken Circle: Mental Health Awareness

DUUC Editor's Note:   May is Mental Health Month.  In addition to the national advocacy for and awareness of mental health issues our congregation has been working on creating an atmosphere of understanding and care in regards to mental health.  We recently hosted a training seminar for Mental Health First Aid  and our pastoral care group is working to strengthen our community as a place for support.  In this blog post one of our congregants, Paul Sellnow, explores the taboo behind mental health and shares with us a piece of his own journey.  For more information on mental health issues and awareness visit the National Alliance on Mental Health

A few days ago, one of my coworkers arrived at the office just before lunchtime and announced "I'm late because I had to drive my wife to the doctor's office. She broke her arm roller skating last night." He did not seem the least bit embarrassed by his wife's apparent lack of rinkmanship, nor did he appear to have any reservations about her character or strength of will.

Most of us are comfortable talking about physical injuries and ailments. I've broken three bones, and each of them has a story behind it. I'm not the least bit squeamish telling you that I have had my gall bladder removed. I hesitate slightly when mentioning my incident with thyroid cancer, only because the "C" word can cause needless consternation on the part of listeners. (Completely treated, more than five years ago, no cause for concern.)

Other topics in our lives may be more intimidating. Some of us may feel awkward talking about money or political views, concerned that relationships with those of different positions may be strained. Some of us may be reluctant to discuss sexual orientation or religious beliefs, worried that family or friends may not approve and may even break off relations and cut us out of their lives. These can be difficult conversations, but a healthy respect for the inherent worth and dignity of the other person will often get us through.

Mental illness, however, retains a stigma in many people's minds despite years of progress in diagnosis and treatment. I've never heard anyone arrive late to work saying "sorry I'm late, my wife had a schizophrenic episode and I had to have her committed." Yet everyone should know that mental illness is a brain disorder, not a character flaw or a lack of willpower, and definitely not a choice. We should be able to talk about it as openly as we would an appendectomy or tonsillectomy.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, just over one in four Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Since the symptoms are often not visible, I will forego the customary "look at the person on your left, look at the person on your right" routine, but clearly this is something that affects almost all of us.

As I was thinking about what we can do about this, I was recalling a service about a year ago on being a Welcoming Congregation. One of the topics was how to be an "ally". The idea is for a straight person to subtly announce themselves as safe to the GLBT community with clues such as rainbow pins, using words like "spouse" and "partner" rather than "husband" and "wife", and making favorable comments about marriage equality.

Of course, having a diagnosable mental illness has nothing to do with being GLBT. But the concept of being an ally seems appropriate to both. I'm not sure exactly what being a mental health ally would involve, but attending the Mental Health First Aid Training that Robert organized would be a good start. Supporting NAMI -- the National Alliance on Mental Illness -- would be another option. NAMI teaches that recovery is possible, with the help of:
- a safe and stable environment
- medical treatment
- educated, supportive family and community
- something to work for
- a vision of what is possible.

A safe and stable environment, supportive community, and vision of what is possible all sound like things that we at DUUC can provide. But in order for that to happen, we have to be able to talk about it. We have to get past the shame and stigma and be able to talk about it the same way we talk about physical ailments like broken ankles or C-sections. I'll start.

One of the hardest experiences I've had was spending the night in the emergency room at my daughter's bedside while they pumped a bottle of pills out of her stomach. That was a long night. In the years since then, she's had her ups and downs. She seems to be feeling better now, but she was receiving electroshock therapy up until a few months ago. We'd like to believe she has turned the corner and we can let our guard down and relax, but we've thought that before. Time will tell.

Some of the most frustrating experiences I've had were the times when my daughter, living out of state and without a car, needed to arrange for rides to her therapist and was told "don't worry about therapy, just study your scriptures and pray extra hard and Heavenly Father will take care of everything." I wouldn't expect to get that advice here, and I do think we need to be careful to observe the line between beloved community and professional mental heath care.

So -- what's your story?

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