Jill Stemple gets to see the world of mental health from both sides as a grant manager for the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and a person living with mental illness. Her hands are rarely still between quilting, knitting, collaging and gardening. She is a member of Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster. She and her very spoiled cat, Liv, make their home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Not all that long ago I “came out” to my church about my long standing mental illness and even more recently I shared that story with the larger church in The Mennonite. The response I’ve received has been gracious and loving, for which I am so very grateful. I’m exceptionally glad if sharing my story helped someone else know that they are known and loved. I’m glad if sharing my story got people thinking about mental illness. But I’ve started to wonder if that is enough. As this series says after all, love is a verb.
When the church reads an issue of The Mennonite on mental illness do we think about it for moment and move on. Or will we work to find ways to find ways to respond?
I hope it is the latter. So if you will indulge me a few more words from my experience, I have a few suggestions.
Learn. It’s hard to love and help when we don’t understand. As a person running a psychosis program who has never experienced psychosis, it was incredibly powerful for me to take a training that simulated the experience of hearing voices. Mental Health First Aid would be a great place to start. Find a local class. Better yet, contact your local mental health center and offer to host a training at your church.
Share. We share in church when someone has a physical illness all the time. Why wouldn’t we show the same concern for those suffering from a mental illness? When we make the assumption that it is something too private to share and don’t offer someone the choice to be named in prayer concerns, we are silently conveying that mental illness is something that shouldn’t be talked about.
Ask. That being said, I cannot emphasize enough, ASK FIRST. Some people may not be ready to share. Respect that. Following my first suicide attempt, it was announced from the pulpit without informing me, let alone asking me. It was so very difficult return to that church, I felt humiliated and exposed. For years. Please ask.
Nourish. I don’t know how many articles I’ve seen on the church and mental illness calling it a “no casserole illness.” It may not be visible, but it can be seriously hard to maintain the basics when things get hard. I used to live in an apartment without a dishwasher. I had enough dishes to eat for about two weeks if I got creative with the Tupperware. Then I would just literally stop eating real food because I couldn’t manage to wash the dishes. Seriously, it’s hard. Bring a casserole. Send a paper plate if you need to. Maybe even wash some dishes. Call it modern foot washing.
Be Present. Mental illness is often associated with social isolation. Just being with someone is huge. When you bring that casserole offer to sit down and eat. Visit someone in the hospital. Invite someone to do something with you. Give someone a call.
Value. Most people function at least on some level, some of the time. Yes, there are days when washing my dishes totally overwhelms me. But most of the time I chair the church hospitality committee where I wash a whole lot of dishes. Pretty much everyone, regardless of mental health status, feels good when their gifts are valued and they contribute to their community. Honor people’s desires to contribute. Invite them into roles that fit their gifts.
Really, just treat people like people, like everyone else.
Don’t let mental illness define someone and how they can be in your community.
Awareness is a great start. But love is a verb. Go and do. Go and love.