Justice at 27 Below by Bob Griggs

written by Bob Griggs

While I was visiting with a friend who is living with schizophrenia, he told me that he had been having difficulty sleeping. I was concerned and asked him if his trouble sleeping was the result of going through a difficult time with his illness. He said no, not really, that wasn’t it. He said he couldn’t sleep because his apartment was so cold. As you can see from the picture, a couple of weeks ago we went through some severe winter weather here is Minnesota, uncomfortable even by our frigid standards.

He went on to explain that he has a subsidized one room apartment in an old building that is in disrepair. The windows in his apartment are old, ill-fitting, and rattle loudly when the wind blows. Even with blankets piled on blankets, it’s not easy to fall asleep when you’re shivering and the window is rattling. I know how hard he is working in recovery from his mental illness. The last thing he needs is to lose sleep and start the day already exhausted because his apartment is too cold.

I know a woman who was about to be discharged from the mental health unit of a local hospital. She had made good progress in her recovery, and the discharge decision should have been good news. It wasn’t. Her discharge meant going back to the same job where she had been sexually harassed. She felt that she had no other options for employment. Whatever harm the job was likely to do to her mental health, the economics of her life forced her to return.

These are examples of the economic challenges faced by many people living with mental illness. It would be easy to expand them with stories about people who are homeless, unemployed, and uninsured. Often these are people whose illness has resulted in checkered work histories and gaps in their work histories, making finding employment and escaping poverty extremely difficult. 

The lack of financial resources creates hardship and stress for people living with mental illness. Simple activities that might bring a little pleasure and respite from the daily grind are unaffordable. Transportation to go see friends, even go see the doctor, is beyond one’s budget. People stay home and stay isolated, never good for someone recovering from mental illness. In so many ways, poverty undermines progress in recovery, making it much harder to sustain hope that life can be happier and more satisfying in the future.

In the church we often think of ministry towards those living with mental illness as a ministry of caring - providing comfort, support, and acceptance to the vulnerable and marginalized. So it is, and so we need to continue and enhance this ministry. In our United Church of Christ, we seek to extend God’s welcome to all people, including these who are often stigmatized and excluded. It is part of our call.

Our ministry to this community is also one of seeking social change, part of what it is to follow Christ in preaching good news to the poor and working to bring God’s reign of justice to all people. The harm that poverty causes to those living with mental illness is a challenge for all of us who seek to do God’s will in the world. Our call includes changing our society so that the struggle for recovery is not exacerbated by the hardships of living in poverty. 

There are many ways of becoming involved in this justice work. A simple one is to google NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and your state’s name to find what current legislation is recommended by NAMI as helping to improve the economic situation of people living with mental illness. Shivering in bed or returning to a toxic job – we must make life better for those who need our help.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.   He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness.  He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies.