No cause for shame

Openness about mental illness breaks a stigma

Feb 24, 2020 by

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When 30 pastors gathered to talk about mental-health issues, one offered the perspective of both a caregiver and one in need of care.

“As a patient, I can feel isolated,” said Tom Harder, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Hillsboro, Kan., who copes with depression and anxiety. “As a pastor, I try to create an environment where I am honest about my own illness and hope this will make others feel less isolated.”

The pastors gathered Feb. 11 at Prairie View, a Mennonite-affiliated mental-health center in Newton, Kan. Their conversation included how congregations can be places where mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.

No one who battles mental illness should feel shamed into silence. Harder’s openness sets an example of overcoming stereotypes and prejudice. By not hiding his illness, he hopes to end a stigma in the body of Christ.

“I feel called to use my own experience in whatever way I can to encourage others,” he said. Once his depression was so severe he had to be hospitalized. Now he is doing well, thanks to the right medications, talk therapy and supportive family and friends.

Awareness of mental illness is more important than ever. Anxiety and depression have risen sharply, especially among young people. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34. One in eight women experiences depression in her lifetime, twice the rate of men. One pastor cited a rising suicide rate in rural America.

“It doesn’t matter the size of the community. Suicide happens everywhere,” said Brent Ide, a social worker at Prairie View. “The more we as a community are willing to acknowledge the struggles that exist, the more we can help people who are in that place.”

The pastors recognized the ­vital role of Prairie View and hospitals like it across the country. Their ministries include caring for those who can’t pay. Prairie View provided $929,621 of charitable care in 2019.

The next person who needs help might be a friend you never suspected was struggling. And the fact that he or she might seek treatment shows how the cultural ground has shifted. Social media or economic stress may indeed cause higher rates of depression and anxiety today, but the rising statistics also indicate people are getting help for problems that once remained hidden.

A new resource for understanding mental illness is Portraits from the Human Faces Tour, from Ted & Company TheaterWorks. Available at tedandcompany.com, the book presents stories of people coping with mental illness. When actor and writer Ted Swartz performed “Laughter Is Sacred Space” — which tells of his friendship with comedic parter Lee Eshleman, who died by suicide in 2007 — photographer Steven Stauffer made portraits of people who came to the shows. Through their stories of pain and resilience, readers discover the wisdom of people who have struggled to overcome a crisis of the mind. Like Tom Harder, their openness about their lives is a gift. As Ted & Company program director ­Valerie Luna Serrels writes in Portraits, they help us see the ­sacred essence of each person.


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