Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mental Health and the Intersection Between Faith and Science

Since the days of Sigmund Freud, one of the predecessors of modern-day psychotherapy, the world of mental health has had a variety of approaches to treatment and recovery. In some faith traditions mental illness has been seen as a curse. People who are afflicted have been tortured and stigmatized. Folks have often been told to pray on it and that this action is the only way to being delivered from one’s affliction.

The same could be said for individuals who have been treated through a medical-based approach. While many people have been aided by modern day medications and psychotherapy, others still suffer, often in silence.

So what is the answer? Well, that’s the $64,000 question. If it were so simple to address mental health challenges and successfully treat people, then the world would be a much better place.

As for myself, I am a seeker. In my lifetime I’ve tried to connect with the God of my understanding in a variety of ways. Prayer, meditation (which I truthfully struggle with, church-related practices and 12-Step recovery have all been ways I’ve tried to establish a relationship that is so often elusive. BUT…I still try.

It’s been my experience that there a variety of factors that have contributed to my mental and emotional stability. I try to practice spiritual wellness through the aforementioned methods. I continue to read and do research on mental health. I exercise, get proper sleep and do my best to eat properly. I have developed healthy relationships and pursued a career path that I find fulfilling. My home environment is stable and safe and my finances are fortunately in check.

But for me it’s the spirit that was the Genesis of my well-being. When I was in the “wilderness” years of my young adult life, I yearned to have a life that was “normal” (which I now know is a misnomer). So what did I do? I prayed and hoped that one day things would get better.

When I made the decision to stop using I took the steps to become affiliated with a Pilgrim-St. Luke's United Church of Christ (now Pilgrim-St. Luke's and El Nuevo Camino UCC). I chose my church primarily because of the minister, a pastor who had confirmed me when I was 14. I became a member on Pentecost, and ironically, this was my pastor’s last day serving this community of faith as he was relocating to Florida to lead a congregation there.

But I decided to stay. At first my attendance was somewhat spotty, however my 12-Step recovery home group began to meet there so I was the liaison between the group and the church.

This was the first time I learned the lesson about how faith communities can partner with groups that promote recovery in any number of ways. So the church became a larger part of my spiritual practice. In the years since (I joined in 1988) I have been able to serve in a variety of capacities: Moderator (President of the congregation), Deacon, Sunday School teacher, Youth Advisor, Usher Coordinator, and most recently Trustee.

This level of service has provided me with many valuable life lessons.

So what does all this have to do with mental health? Well, to begin, it is through service to others that I have been given the opportunity to be in community with a group of people who have been supportive of me. Also, by learning about the teachings of my religious practice, I have come to realize that there is strength in acknowledging that I need help to get through many of life’s ups and downs. This is also true for my 12-Step program. The fellowship and love that I have experienced through both of these venues has been a source of strength and comfort.

Another way that I’ve been able to “give back” is through my participation on the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network Board of Directors. This national group of clergy and lay leaders is forging new ground within the UCC to create a safe space for those living with mental health challenges within our church communities.

One way that we have initiated this is through the WISE Covenant. WISE stands for: Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged. This effort was officially sanctioned by the UCC at its General Synod meeting in 2015. Essentially, the WISE Covenant is a structured program to help churches be more welcoming and accepting of those individuals who may live with mental illness. Currently we are in the process of planning two WISE trainings for congregations in Nebraska and Florida. This exciting work has the potential of transforming churches in a remarkable way.

Last week we had our annual “face-to-face” board meeting where the WISE Covenant was a central part of the agenda. The following day there was a one-day conference sponsored by the Interfaith Network and Pathwaysto Promise. This event featured a number of presenters who spoke on a variety of topics, including cultural competence with Mental Health First Aid, WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan), and one on the concept of the importance of companionship, to name but a few.

This program focused on how spirituality and science are not mutually exclusive and that the two approaches can work together to help people learn how to live healthy lives.

What I’ve come to realize is that my Higher Power works through people. And it is through this manifestation that healing occurs. Over the last 28 years of recovery from addiction I have been blessed to have wonderful support from friends and family. But I also had to learn to ask for help. As the old saying goes, “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.”
There are a number of resources such as NAMI Faithnet that can serve as a guide to utilizing one's faith to support recovery.

I believe that by using all the tools that I’ve had available, whether it be psychotherapy, medication, faith, social connections and other wellness practices, it’s been possible for me to achieve a life that can be better than the one that I had before. But then again, it is a journey after all.
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