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Congregations Open the Door to People with Mental Illnesses

by Mary Beth Coudal

General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church

"We are in your congregations, your churches. Just think about how many of us there are and how many more of us there are with our families. We want to make friends with you. We want to talk to you. We want to work with you. We have capacities to help. Give us that chance." - Gary, a person with mental illness.

The compassion and concern for individuals, families and communities with mental illnesses led the General Board of Global Ministries to the 1992 General Conference Resolution: "We reaffirm our confidence that God's unqualified love for all persons beckons us to reach out with fully accepting love to all, but particularly to those with disabling inability to relate to themselves or others due to mental illness."

Logo of the Teleconference, Brush Painting Rainbow

In the Fall of 1998, The United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, Health and Relief, the Board of Church and Society, Pathways to Promise, and United Methodist Communications sponsored a three-and-a-half hour video teleconference, "Mental Illness: Paint a Different Picture," seen by hundreds of people at dozens of sites around the country.

Since the teleconference, executive staff of Ministries to People with Disabilities at the GBGM, The Reverend Kathy Reeves, has continued to work in partnership with church agencies and the ministry of Pathways to Promise, funded by GBGM, to encourage congregations to reach out to families of individuals with mental illness. "This is an issue that affects the entire community," says Rev. Reeves.

Pathways to Promise, an interfaith program on ministry and mental illness, educates congregations on how to support families -- most often the primary caregivers for people with long-term mental illnesses. One out of four families in the U.S. is affected by mental illness.

The program is racially inclusive. A recent study indicated that African-American families depend more on religious resources than community resources, such as advocacy groups, compared to other ethnic groups.

According to Jennifer Shifrin, executive director of Pathways to Promise, church members may also need to become aware of mental illness because clergy members may be more prone to depression than certain other professions. (Although Ms. Shifrin acknowledges both a biological and environmental foundation to mental illness.)

With clergy and others in emotionally stressful jobs, Ms. Shifrin suspects mental illness "has to do with expectations - not allowing yourself to take care of yourself. This leads to burn out and exhaustion. We are in a gold star society We measure our success with how well we do at work. That can be self-defeating. That's where spirituality and a strong sense of self are really a necessity. So you don't measure yourself by how many widgets you make or how many souls you save," says Ms. Shifrin.

Ms. Shifrin foresees a time in the near future when the stigma associated with mental illness goes the way of cancer years ago when people whispered about the disease. People with mental illness may feel a hushed shamefulness from church members who think the person with the illness "can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps." Or that with a strong faith or a strong will, those who are suffering from mental illness can overcome anything.

Pathways to Promise Compares How Congregations Could React:

When a Person Has Cancer

  • Visit them in the hospital or at home
  • Offer prayers for them at services
  • Take them a meal
  • Listen and give moral support
  • Learn more about the illness

When a Person Has Mental Illness

  • Visit them in the hospital or at home
  • Offer prayers for them at services
  • Take them a meal
  • Listen and give moral support
  • Learn more about the illness

Church members can offer the same helping hand to individuals and families with mental illnesses as to those church members who suffer from other diseases by providing support, time, information and prayers.

"The congregation can help. There is this congregation that donates its services. They open the hall so we can have a meeting. We can have a get-together. This is all we ask of you. Just open your door." --Gail, a person with mental illness, who found sanctuary in a church.

For more information on Pathways to Promise, you may call 314-644-8400. To learn more about the video teleconference, "Mental Illness: Paint a Different Picture," see the article, "Faith Communities Care About Mental Illness".


   Headline-grabbing violence is not a symptom of the most common forms of mental illness. Many mental health advocates claim that people with mental illness are no more likely to commit violent acts than the population at large.

   Violent behavior may be more common in subgroups of mental illness like schizophrenia. However, almost 20 percent of the population lives with depression and 18 percent lives with an anxiety disorder; whereas only about one percent of the population lives with schizophrenia.

December 15, 1999

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