In Part 1 of this blog on Mental Health and Gun Violence, we sought to dispel some misunderstandings you might have about the conflation of mental illness and gun violence.
Now let’s discuss how faith communities can be a resource in a variety of ways to address the stigma which is associated with mental illness. It is essential that we can reduce that stigma so that persons can fulfill their potential.
Here is my list of actions.
- Education, Awareness, Education, Awareness. There can be positive results by having faith communities provide opportunities to learn about mental health and about suicide prevention. There are local programs and organizations which can be approached so as to become aware. Looking around in your community, I hope there are local teams which can offer a workshop or a panel of people immersed in the topic of brain disorders/mental illness for conversation and dialogue.
- We need to know that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental health condition in differing levels of severity in a given year. 1 in 17 persons lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. And I would venture to say that almost everyone knows a loved one or a colleague or a friend who has been affected by a mental health challenge. We can break the silence on this subject in part by understanding more. Sue Klebold (mother of Dylan who died in a suicide-homicide at Columbine) was quoted as saying “(I) missed the warning signs of (my) son’s depression, and the suicidal urges that accompanied it, because (I) didn’t know how to look for them.” Seventeen years after Columbine, she writes about her exploration not only about her own grief at losing a child but also her continuing education in mental health issues and suicide prevention (A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy). All of us could use continuing education, which is available, through MHFA or NAMI as well as from this book.
- We can be advocates for justice. There are major legislative bills dealing with mental health issues in congress. You can learn about them and advocate for them. Some of the topics are expanding Medicaid funding; funding more psychiatric beds; to controversial issues such as addressing the privacy restrictions for family to be helpful; to the issues of assisted outpatient treatment (AOT). The most glaring issue in American mental health policy is the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. It remains the single most important measure to expand access to mental health and addiction treatment, serving severely vulnerable populations such persons who are homeless, and addressing the complicated medical and psychiatric difficulties of many young men cycling through our jails and prisons. Can we not actively support it?
- We can bring our support to those who are seeking to alleviate the local frustration about mental health services. We are appreciative of the state of CO making $24 million available for walk-in mental health treatment centers, Crisis Stabilization Units across the state. In Sue’s book we read, “There is, in particular, an overlap between brain health issues and mass shootings.” (An examination of 37 school attacks which hopes of preventing others in the future.) The researchers found that “most attackers showed some history of suicidal attempts or thoughts, or a history of feeling extreme depression or desperation.” Access to brain health screening and treatment, then, is critical in preventing violence as well as suicide, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and a host of other dangers threatening teens. Better access to these resources may not be “the “answer, but’s pretty close to one.
- We know that the largest mental institutions now are our prisons and jails, the top three being the LA county jail, Rikers Island (NYC), and Cook County Jail (Chicago), where mental health services are minimal at least. There are 10 times more people with mental illness being “treated” in jails and prisons (2 million) than there are in state-funded psychiatric treatment. If we dare to care about those who are incarcerated, then the support for in jail treatment as well as release programs for reintegration need to grow.
About Rev. Alan Johnson:
Rev. Alan Johnson is a United Church of Christ clergy who retired as chaplain at the Children’s Hospital, Denver. Prior to that he was pastor in congregations in Connecticut and New York City. He also served on the national staff of the UCC for 16 years. Presently he serves as the chair of the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network.