One way to reduce stigma and isolation by breaking the silence! - by Alan Johnson

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Ps. 32:3

I am convinced that offering a spiritual support for mental health in our congregations is one of the essential components of a mental health ministry.  I believe this is true because one the major hurdles that we all experience when we come across mental health concerns is the stigma that is carried by so many people who are affected.  And a common experience as a result is isolation. Who can I tell about my mental illness who is not going to judge me?  Who is not going to shun me?  Even my internal stigma can be upsetting!  My silence is killing me!

So much of the stigma which is directed toward people who have a psychological disorder comes because people simply are afraid.  They just don't understand what is going on.  And so many of the news reports where there is an issue of mental illness, the account mentions violence. This feeds the fear.

No wonder people then withdraw themselves, or feel as they are the contemporary leper.  While people who are living with and managing their mental illness do not show signs of this condition, many feel and think that they are not “normal” like so many others.  But you have probably heard that the only “normal” in a household is the dial on the washing machine.

It was a result of experiencing this isolation of people I had come to know, a couple of us starting a spiritual support for mental health in the church we attended.  We wanted to create a space that was safe and sacred where people could tell portions of their own stories, the stories of their mental illness or of their stories of being affected by mental illness by their loved ones.

Having attended 12 step meetings, I appreciated the confidentiality and safety of speaking of the pain, brokenness, loss, and grief as well as the joy, happiness, and wholeness which comes through recovery.  What about a similar context where mental illness can be the subject?

There is a model for a Spiritual Support Group for Mental Health which is being used in my area in Boulder, CO.  It is held in a Congregational (UCC) and a Lutheran church, a Jewish synagogue, and a Catholic Church.  The specific outline and design of this group, along with the Guidelines are available  here (It's from the "Becoming a Wise Congregation" Congregational Toolkits right here on our website)

Here are three testimonies of those who have attended the Spiritual Support Group for Mental
  • For me, this was the first time to say in front of others, that I suffered from depression.   Thank you for the spiritual support group.  ---Maria
  • I was involved in a support group for those touched by bipolar illness for over 8 years.  I found a strong sense of community and it helped me through some very difficult times.  The spiritual support group helps ground me, makes me realize that there is Someone outside of myself who loves me unconditionally.  The rituals of the group, the inspirational reading all help me to center myself and provide a depth of experience I did not have before. ---Anne
  • Listening, no judgment, empathy and sympathy.  Also and perhaps more importantly, a structured group that has boundaries for myself and my co-attendees creating a safe, professional and reliable environment.  ---Jen
It is in the safe and sacred space of a spiritual support group that the power of the personal story can be shared and heard.  There is affirmation and confirmation that these experiences are widely shared.  Scratch  the surface of almost anyone's life and there is some story about a mental health condition. And if enough of us were courageous enough and found it safe enough to tell the story, the stigma and the isolation would be greatly reduced.  
Alan Johnson is a mental health advocate who served on the national United Church Board of Homeland Ministries, 1979-1995, retired as chaplain at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, and serves as chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.