SPOTLIGHT: May is Mental Health Awareness Month

5/14/2018
By Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five Americans is affected by mental health conditions. Unfortunately, throughout the world there is still a stigma attached to mental health illnesses. Because of that, NAMI and other organizations use the month of May to promote the theme of "CureStigma" to helpfight the shame, provide support, educate the public and advocate for equal care.
 
The members of the First Congregational Church of Fairhaven couldn't wait until May, however. In February, they held a Sunday service focused on Mental Health Awareness.
 
"We have a young woman named Jessica Rowlett who lives with severe OCD," said Rev. Bette McClure, pastor of the church. "She and I have talked a lot about increasing awareness about mental health in our congregation. After she was hospitalized for several months, she was determined that we do a service focused on mental health, and I thought there was no need to wait until May to talk about inclusion, acceptance, and awareness of those suffering from the illness."
 
"It was important to talk about this with the congregation because it could help someone with circumstances similar to mine feel that they are not alone," Rowlett explained. "I wanted to encourage people to be hopeful and to seek help if necessary. And because most of the people in the congregation were familiar with me, it was a good place to start shedding light on the topic."
 
Fairhaven Church
Members of First Congregational Church of Fairhaven pose in front of a weaving they created during Mental Health Sunday to show the diversity that makes up the church.

McClure explained that the church is trying to make focused efforts on being more welcoming to all people. They are not ONA but have openly gay members and leaders, they welcome anyone who comes seeking baptism, a developmentally delayed individual helps with the collection, and their building space is open to AA, AlAnon, and AlaTeen. However, there was a noticeable hesitation and fearfulness among the churchgoers about folks living with mental illness. When building space was offered to a Bi-polar support group a few years ago, some people asked if security should be obtained. Others were more subtle and just shied away from anyone who was struggling with some behavioral issues.
 
"I've been aware of the shame some folks who live with mental health challenges feel about themselves," said McClure. "As a person who struggled with depression when I was younger I understand that sentiment."
 
McClure explored the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network website and found litanies and prayers for their service. The Network provides a wealth of resource materials for Mental Health Sunday, among other things, to promote understanding and help develop mental health ministries in local churches.
 
One of the key points of Rowlett's message dealt with wanting to see a change in society's attitudes towards the topic of mental health and how individuals approach those who struggle with mental health concerns.
 
"If I continued to stay silent on the way we approach the matter, then nothing would change and it would be as if I was saying that the shame that surrounds the topic of mental health is justified," she said.
 
Another key point of the sermon was that every act of kindness -- even if it seems small -- can have a massive chain reaction. "I mentioned the kind cards that people sent me in treatment and how this gave me the courage to speak to the whole congregation about my experience. They didn't treat me like my condition was a character flaw or a sin. That is how issues surrounding mental health have been approached in the past and that is why I wanted change."
 
"Jessica delivered a knock out message about her journey," said McClure. "There was a spontaneous standing ovation for her at the end. Because Jessica is known and well-liked by people in our congregation I think her willingness to speak about her journey moved people to a new place of understanding and empathy and that can only be good for all of us. I know that the service and her sharing has opened up at least one other person in the church to talk about her mental health challenges."
 
Rowlett has not only supplied the UCC Mental Health Network with some new prayers, but she is also starting an OCD peer support group at the church.
 
"Being open about it was a little scary at first but, I knew it would be beneficial for me because it gave me confidence and relieved the stress of hiding this part of my life," she said. "It was helpful because it seemed to bring us closer together as a church. I really feel that people felt more relaxed and open after this experience."
 
The church is now thinking about ways to take this message to the wider community. McClure recently attended training from the Community Nurses organization in the area on how local businesses/churches/etc. can become "dementia friendly," and she will be sharing that knowledge soon with the congregation. She is also taking an online course for clergy offered by the BU School of Social Work on Mental Health and Older Adults to become better educated and get some ideas for additional mental health ministries.
 
"Our scripture reading for Mental Health Awareness Sunday service was from 1st Corinthians, the importance of all parts of the body," explained McClure. "I think that we are trying to live out that teaching from Paul; none of us is more or less important or essential to the health and vibrancy of our church. We will all benefit by being open about ourselves and accepting and loving to one another. If everyone who comes in our door is treated with love and acceptance, everyone is better off. And I can't help but believe that the resulting openness and acceptance might spread outside of our walls."

 
Jessica Rowlett's peer-led OCD Support Group meets the fourth Thursday of every month at the First Congregational Church of Fairhaven, 34 Center Street in Fairhaven, MA. For more information please contact: southcoastocd@gmail.com
 
You can contact Rev. Bette McClure at the church office at 508-993-3368 or email pastorfirstcong@gmail.com.
 
NOTE: The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network works to reduce stigma and promote the inclusion of people with mental illnesses/brain disorders and their families in the life, leadership and work of congregations. 
Find out more: http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/about.html

 
Visit the Rhode Island Conference, UCC, Ministries for Health  website page for additional resources.


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