Monday, April 3, 2017

WISE Up for Mental Health

On Friday, March 31 the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network sponsored the first W.I.S.E.(Welcoming Inclusive Supportive Engaged) Conference at the First Central Congregational  Church in Omaha, Nebraska. It was my first visit to the Cornhusker State (unfortunately, Warren Buffett was busy, although his office building was right next to the hotel where I stayed). WISE is an outreach and education program for churches to be welcoming for those living with mental health challenges through a variety of resources. It was approved at the UCC General Synod in 2015.

I was on the planning team and also presented a workshop entitled, “Mental Health and the Church: How, When, and Why to Help.” It focused on signs and symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia as well as that of substance abuse. I also spoke about barriers to effective ministry, cultural considerations, stigma in the church, and various models of successful mental health-related programs (Model of Friendship, Creating Caring Faith Communities, and Communities of Compassion and Justice).

There were also workshops on how to become a WISE Congregation by Rev. Sarah Griffith-Lund and Rev. Salome As-Salaam,  how to develop a spiritual support group for mental health and wellness by Rev. Alan Johnson, and one on prevention, intervention, and postvention for suicide by Rev. Rachael Keefe.

The keynote address was delivered by Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith-Lund, Vice-President for Christian Theological Seminary and author of Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about MentalIllness, Family and Church (Chalice Press). Rev. Lund provided a moving story of her personal experience as a family member of individuals living with mental illness. I’ve actually had the opportunity to hear Rev. Lund deliver a talk at the UCC Widening the Welcome Conference in 2015 but it was still as powerful this time as it was the first time I heard it. I highly recommend her book.

The topics of mental health and the church are often mutually exclusive. There are some churches that disavow those living with mental health challenges. There are some that stigmatize those with mental illness and do not offer a place free of judgment. There are those who say, “Pray it out,” or treat the mental health condition as if it is a symptom of demonic possession. And there are those that remain silent.

One of the objectives of the WISE initiative is to approach these issues head on by educating congregations about the facts surrounding mental health disorders and providing practical tools to equip both clergy and laity about being a more open community. On the website there is even a toolkit for churches as well as resources such as the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness, NAMI Faithnet and Pathways to Promise.

The theme of the conference was from Isaiah 43:1, ““Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” This scripture passage is especially meaningful to me in that it is a reminder that no matter what, God accepts me and loves me as I am despite the many challenges I have. Also, when reflecting on this particular scripture I am assured that God has called me (and others) to do the work of helping people in need in God’s name. And for those of us that serve on the UCCMental Health Board of Directors it is spreading the Good News and helping churches within (and outside) the denomination to embrace the teachings of Christ in respect to those who are so often “invisible” in our congregations.

To get more personal, I’d like to recount a story from when I was struggling with my diagnosis of bipolar disorder and was without a church home. It was in the summer of 1984 and I was living on the West Side of Buffalo, NY, my hometown. On one sunny Sunday morning, I walked to the Unitarian Universalist Church on nearby Elmwood Avenue. I visited there particularly because the pastor who confirmed me, Rev. Philip Smith, was there with his congregation from Pilgrim-St. Luke’sUCC, whose church had a massive fire that previous winter. Many years later I joined as a member, recalling the welcoming presence I felt when I was in need.

I recall how utterly confused I was. I was dealing with symptoms of mania and found them difficult to manage. After the worship service, I remember speaking with Rev. Smith and becoming distraught to the point of breaking down into tears. But Rev. Smith was patient with me. He didn’t judge me or tell me that I just needed to “pray harder.” He just listened. There were other times he ministered to me as well, like the several times I called him in the middle of the night or when he visited me in the Erie County Medical Center psychiatric unit. In many ways, Rev. Smith was embodying what the concept of what WISE is all about.

Currently we are working to spread the word about the WISE Covenant and help churches throughout our denomination to adopt this program in their congregations. There have already been several churches who have voted to become a WISE church.

The concept behind the WISE Covenant is not unique to the UCC. There are other faith traditions that embrace the practice of compassion and care for those of differing cognitive abilities. But the more that do so, in my humble opinion, the better the work we are doing as God’s servants. So, whether you are a member of the UCC, another denomination or faith tradition, or even someone who chooses a different path altogether, remember that there are people who deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and love no matter what their challenge may be, whether it be physical, mental or emotional.

Be well.

p.s. Keep an eye out for the UCC Mental Health Network blog, "The Journey", beginning on  May 1 and weekly thereafter. More information to follow.

1 comment:

  1. Way to go, Karl. You touched accurately on major themes from the WISE Conference, from your own experience, and the wisdom that you have. Thanks for the encouragement for others to see and find ways to integrate spirituality/faith and mental health. A strong faith foundation does embrace the struggles and the affirmations of all of us who are affected by mental health challenges. Our faith communities can be a vibrant and vital place for people to grow and live their well being. Thanks for your strong voice.