by Jim Zahniser
In the fall of 2014, Pathways to Promise changed its tagline to “Putting faith in mental health recovery.” The old one, “Interfaith Ministries and Mental Illness,” certainly reflected the fact that Pathways was an interfaith organization that was founded over two decades ago out of concern that faith communities did not typically provide a caring response when people in their midst found themselves coping with mental illnesses. That concern still haunts us today.
But in late 2014 we began to think anew about how we might awaken people to our vision for how the world needs to change. When people came to the new site, we wanted them to understand the gist of our “faith and recovery movement,” as Robert Skrocki described it at a Pathways-sponsored conference in Chicago last January. I am thrilled that the new tagline that emerged challenges me to keep my eyes on the two prizes that we seek.
First, we want to see faith recognized by the mental health community as central to the recovery of many, if not most, people with mental illness. Unfortunately, the extant mental health system too often neglects faith and spirituality. Studies in such scholarly journals as the American Journal of Public Health and Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal report that, when coping with their challenges, people with mental illnesses often turn to prayer, meditation and scripture reading. Despite this reality, mental health programs tend to neglect faith and spirituality, in part because people with mental illnesses sometimes express delusions (false beliefs) and when they do, those statements sometimes have religious content. Mental health workers often don’t want to feed a person’s tendency to talk in a delusional manner by bringing up religion. But this often is terribly wrong on two counts: it over-pathologizes the person by assuming she or he cannot also discuss faith in a non-delusional manner; and, worse, it serves to further de-humanize the many people who receive services at community mental health clinics, hospitals, and psychiatric rehabilitation centers for whom faith is central to their identities. The overly cautious and protective perspective implies that a basic human concern, faith, is out of bounds for people with mental illnesses.
Fortunately, this is starting to change. For example, Pathways Regional Consultant, Dennis Middel, who works full-time as the Faith and Spiritual Wellness Coordinator at the Mental Health Center of Denver, trains staff in how to incorporate faith and spirituality into a larger framework of cultural competence. MHCD staff now routinely ask clients about their spirituality, religious values, faith practices and goals related to faith community involvement. Middel’s approach, which involves working with local faith communities to develop a caring response to people who might be referred to them, helps MHCD staff to be more effective in responding to and supporting the deepest held values of clients.
The second prize we seek will be realized when faith communities and congregations routinely demonstrate more faith in mental health recovery. I first came into awareness of mental health recovery when, after serving me a sandwich for lunch at his house, my good friend and graduate school classmate showed me his bottle of antipsychotic medication and told me he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. But why do I imply my friend was in “recovery” when he was still receiving treatment for his mental illness?
What we mean by mental health recovery these days is wonderfully multi-faceted but it does start with the basic empirical reality, across more then a dozen studies worldwide, that even people who have been diagnosed with “serious” mental illnesses like Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, and Major Depression often can and do experience alleviation of their symptoms and full restoration of their functional abilities. It is high time that faith communities embrace the fact that any person with a mental illness might recover from it, indeed, could recover from it in this respect. (Those who are not convinced recovery happens can check out an article that Courtenay Harding and I published back in 1994, cited at the end of this blog post.)
But, again, why do I say my friend, who was still taking medications, was the one who began to teach me about recovery? It’s because he embodied each aspect of the most advanced and contemporary perspectives on recovery, which, by the way have been articulated primarily by people with first-hand experience. People with lived experience of recovery have taught us that it includes the following:
the ability to live a self-directed life and to make his or her own choices,
meaningful roles and relationships in the community,
a sense of purpose connected to a larger reality, and
hope for the future.
Patricia Deegan, a woman who has lived with Schizophrenia for many years, declared that “recovery is a journey of the heart.” When in recovery, the person has embarked on a journey with the basic adult capacities outlined above and that major religions often try to help people, in general, to attain. The person also has the courage (the “heart”) to believe she or he can attain that capacity.
James Fowler, once wrote a book called, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, in which he argued, among other things, that becoming a Christian was a process of becoming the adult person God wants one to become. At the center of becoming an adult person, according to Fowler, is vocation – development and enactment of a sense of purpose aligned with created reality and imbued with the person’s strengths, perspectives, and gifts. As the Christian novelist/author Frederick Buechner similarly put it: The place God calls you to is that place where your greatest gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.
As a Christian with roots similar to Fowler’s I have a complementary notion of vocation which animates my understanding of vocation: God calls each person to a unique variation on the primary theme of human vocation – to participate with God in the ongoing creation, redemption and restoration of all things. People who have experienced mental illnesses do not get an exemption from that basic calling and they have the same potential as anyone else to fulfill it. We all need “a little help from our friends” and, I believe, from God to stay on the vocational journey. It’s just that people with mental illnesses often are less able to hide the fact that they need that support and encouragement.
So, this is our vision: By paying attention to their deepest-held, often faith-related hopes, purposes, yearnings and desires Mental health communities (providers and systems of care) fully embrace the humanity of people they serve. And a second one is like it – By paying attention to their deepest-held, often faith-related hopes, purposes, yearnings and desires, faith communities fully embrace the humanity of all in their midst.
Oh, but wait a second, that’s the same thing, isn’t it?
Harding, C.M., & Zahniser, J.H. (1994). Empirical correction of seven myths about schizophrenia with implications for treatment. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 90 (supp. 384), 140-146.