By Monique Shore
Mental health issues touch the lives of many in our pews and in our communities. And yet, even in what should be the safety of our family of faith, it can be difficult for individuals to share these burdens. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Iowa consistently ranks at the bottom of all states for mental health programs and services. Inadequate mental health services are a contributing factor to nearly every issue our society struggles with - health care, education, abuse, crime - all are complicated and made worse by an inadequate mental health care system. At Grinnell UMC, we’ve been wondering how we can gain better understanding of the complexities of this issue to better support and reach out to those who are struggling in this area, whether personally or as a family.
Last spring, encouraged by the congregation’s desire to act on this issue, GUMC Lay Leader Monique Shore put together a resolution on mental health for annual conference which passed with strong support. It raised the desire to better equip our congregations to advocate and support mental health services in our communities and asked the conference to provide support and leadership in this area. One idea raised was to encourage Mental Health First Aid training be offered through our churches. GUMC, partnering with Grinnell’s Presbyterian church, was able to offer this training to 30 members for the first time in September.
What did we expect to get out of this training? Going in most people stated they didn’t know what to expect, they simply wanted to gain a better understanding of mental health conditions and treatments. There is a strong desire among our members to help, but often a sense of not knowing what to say or do for fear of making things worse. And a lack of understanding of the issues and the existing support system make it hard to know where to begin.
The half day training was offered through a collaboration with a local professional. She does the training for government employees and offered to adapt it for our church group. The session began with a series of statements regarding individuals with mental health. The answers were generally true or false, but in several cases were the more complicated “sometimes”. The discussion laid the groundwork for explanations of how the brain often simply doesn’t work the way it should in people battling mental illness, and how the complex reasons are often incredibly difficult to treat. She also explained types of treatments and the various types of professionals and how they help. This was especially eye opening for many because it’s a very complicated web of services, confounded by funding cuts and a shortage of services. The entry point for assistance is not always clear and availability is almost always hard to find.
Where do we go from here? Participants were asked after the session what ways they thought the church could provide leadership in this area. “We need to be open to this topic, non-judgemental, welcoming, and provide more training to church members,” said one. Making this class available to more people was lifted as something that would certainly be helpful. Another said “Opening up conversations about mental health, and hosting learning sessions, will help remove the stigma.” GUMC is currently exploring ways we could do this. One thing we already know is that by lifting the topic in prayer and focus over the last year, we are already making a difference to those who may have felt they were alone in their struggle. And this is a start.