Mental Health in the EMC: Where We Have Been and Where We Are Going

Credit: IStock

Mental Health Initiative 2018

by Irma Janzen and Heidi Dirks

Where We Have Been

Psalm 13 begins with these words, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?”  We do not know exactly what the Psalmist’s circumstances were when he penned these words, but we do hear the agony, the feelings of God having forgotten him, of God hiding His face from the writer.

What we do know is that many people, maybe including most of us over the roughly 4,000 years since those verses were written, have echoed these words in times of terrible distress when it seemed as if God had either forgotten us or hidden His face from us.  It happens often when we pray and pray and pray and pray some more and yet we see no evidence of answers to our prayers or of the changes in the things we are praying about.

Many or maybe all of us have cried these words and some of us are people who are living with serious and long term mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, clinical depression or a variety of other neurological disorders. Then there is another larger group of us who have loved ones, family members, friends, fellow-congregants who have cried those same words because we feel so helpless in walking with our loved ones for whom life is mostly agony and despair. We are not able to help and it just seems as if God is nowhere within calling distance to come and bring us relief. Not even in the days of The Messenger, texting, and all the other wonderful ways in which we communicate today!

How Do We Respond?

How do we as Christians respond both to God and to our community in amid these realities?  Do we give up and say God is not doing anything so why believe in Him?  Do we reprimand our friends and family members for not believing or even by suggesting that God does not hear because we have sinned?  Do we walk away and say we can’t do anything and leave them to whatever happens?

Or are we as believers perhaps in a position to walk alongside and love and to bring a tiny glimpse of hope amid the darkness?  Are we able to sit in silence and to listen to their pain?  Are we able to hold their hand in the darkness?  Are we able to refer them to resources such as medical doctors, therapists, and mobile crisis units at the appropriate times?  Are we able go with them to an appointment they don’t have the strength to get to on their own?   Are we able to continue to walk with them through the many weeks, months or even years?

Understanding Needed

This takes a lot of understanding, understanding both of the illness and other issues with which the person may be struggling.  This takes leaving our fears with God and asking Him for wisdom as to how best to do this without giving simplistic answers.  This includes grace and humility on our part because we probably don’t have helpful answers to give.  This takes much prayer and faith that God is working in ways we cannot yet see and of living with hope for that which we do not yet see.

Many of us are not comfortable with things we cannot fix quickly because we are so busy and have many urgent things to do so we don’t want to become involved.  Maybe we not want to be too involved because it will take too much effort.  Some of us are scared because we feel helpless.  Some of us who have a mental illness are even scared to let others know because we fear stigma and rejection or even that we will be told we are weak or don’t have enough faith.

Younger Generation Sees Need

Having heard many stories especially during the 1990’s and early 2000’s when I (Irma) was working with the Mental Health and Disabilities Program for MCC Canada, I was so glad that the younger generation is seeing the ongoing and continuing need for more education and understanding of mental illnesses and how we are able to help. First, by seeking to help early on so many major crises can be stopped before they actually become crises; and second, also because of the ongoing support many people need now and will for years to come.

Where We Are Going

I (Heidi) am privileged to serve as a member of the EMC Board of Church Ministries, and we are excited to be starting a Mental Health Initiative with the support of several members of our EMC churches who are experienced and skilled in the field of mental health. We believe that it is important for churches to talk about mental health and how to support people who are struggling with mental illnesses.

A Need to Talk and Help

The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, with 8% of adults experiencing major depression. Between 10 and 20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness, with 5% of male youth and 12% of female youth experiencing a major depressive episode. These statistics are not meant to create fear, but rather to highlight the need for churches to talk about mental health and help individuals and families access appropriate care.

Abundant Springs

This need was especially clear to me while at Abundant Springs in May 2017. I was able to attend Abundant Springs as the campus counselor, offering to talk to youth and leaders throughout the weekend, and consulting with leaders when concerns came up about their youth.

Many conversations about mental health were sparked by the well-attended workshops led by Dan Dacombe (Heartland Community Church) entitled Faith and Mental Illness. Feedback from both youth and leaders was very positive, and many leaders asked for more resources to help them support youth who are struggling with mental illnesses.

Mennonite Central Committee has already done much work, as Irma has already described, and EMC churches are already integrating many practices that promote positive mental health. This BCM mental health promotion initiative aims to support churches in the positive practices they already have in place, and to provide information and resources to further develop these positive practices.

A Year-Long Encouragement

Articles exploring different mental health topics will appear in The Messenger in print and online over the next year. Our hope and prayer is that these articles will be an encouragement to those who are in distress, and provide practical information about mental health to support those who are caring for individuals who are struggling.

Irma

Irma Janzen

Heidi-Dirks

Heidi Dirks

Irma Janzen, MEd, MA, has served in education, as the coordinator of MCC Canada’s Mental Health and Disabilities Program, and as a pastor. She is part of Fort Garry EMC.

Heidi Dirks, BEd, MA (counseling), serves on the EMC Board of Church Ministries. She is part of Braeside EMC.

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