Upstate conference educates about how church can help end silence on depression, anxiety, suicide
By Jessica Brodie
EASLEY—When it comes to mental health, the church has a job to do—and it’s a job the church is uniquely positioned to fulfill. That was the key message from a district-wide mental health conference held Feb. 23, which featured pastors, psychologists and other industry professionals working to educate Christians about mental illness and how to help.
“Let’s Talk: End the Silence” drew United Methodists across the Anderson District and beyond to Bethesda United Methodist Church for a morning filled with plenaries, workshops and resources. The event focused on anxiety, depression and suicide in both youth and adults, something that impacts a vast number of people across South Carolina and the world.
“Not everybody is getting the help they need, and there are a lot of reasons for that,” said Ken Dority, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness Greenville, noting only 40-43 percent of adults with mental health problems are getting help, and only about 51 percent of youth.
And when people are not treated, Dority told the crowd, it creates a ripple effect, like dropping a pebble into a still body of water. A person with a mental health condition is at an increased risk of chronic disease, he said; 20 percent of adults who have a mental health disorder also will have a substance abuse disorder, 10 million families in America are caregivers to adults with mental illness, 20 percent of those who are homeless have a mental health condition, and 70 percent of the youth in juvenile justice system have one.
“It’s pervasive,” Dority said. “It affects not only individuals and families but the entire community.”
This year’s conference was a follow-up from last year’s. Last year’s event more broadly addressed all aspects of mental illness, from addiction and dementia to abuse and mood disorders.
This year’s attempted to focus in on what organizer Peggy Dulaney called the “high-volume, high-risk problems” of anxiety, depression and suicide.
Navigating the ‘waters of life’
The day started with an opening plenary featuring Bethesda’s pastor the Rev. Dan Batson, who spoke on the importance of seeking the abundant life and peace found in Jesus Christ. Often, Batson said, people in a mental health crisis often lose that peace, but the church can be a big help in steering people back on track.
“Your presence here means you are devoted to that,” Batson said, welcoming the crowd to the event.
Anderson District Superintendent Rev. Steve Patterson spoke next, drawing from the life of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings, specifically the isolation and darkness Elijah struggled with in 1 Kings 19. Elijah, who’d once had everything going for him, now was being hunted by Queen Jezebel, and he could not see his way out of the situation. Instead of being a powerful champion of God, something clicked inside of him, and he now longed for his own death, turning into a withering soul cowering under a broom tree.
Sometimes, Patterson said, people today face that sort of immobilizing depression and can no longer navigate the waters of life steadily.
That’s when the church and its people can come alongside a person with the helpful tools, relationships and resources they need.
“If you don’t learn to ride the storm, the storm will ride you, and that is not a pleasant part of life,” Patterson said. “Maybe we can be the ones who can bring the right tool to someone.”
‘If God is stirring you, He will equip you’
Dulaney, a faith community nurse, told the crowd there are so many things the church can do to help people impacted by depression, anxiety, suicide or other mental health issues.
She drew from Matthew 13:9, about the importance of listening, sharing a story about a boy who missed his one chance to play in the game because he never heard his coach call his name.
Likewise, she said, we need to be vigilant as we listen for the ways God is steering us to help people with mental illness.
“Pray for guidance about what the Lord is calling you to do,” Dulaney said. “If God is stirring you in some way, then He will equip you, and there are so many things that you can do.”
Dority said the church is “not only uniquely positioned but also uniquely qualified to help.”
“One of the things we do incredibly well is build relationships,” Dority said. “We know how to care for, serve and engage people.”
But mental health is something we don’t always understand, he said. That is why the church must constantly work to educate its people to be a better resource in the community, seeing the people behind the illness and doing what we can to care for them, whether that is bringing them a casserole or guiding them to a counselor.
“It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s a bit messy, but most of the things the church is involved with are messy,” Dority said. “Messy, hard stuff in people’s life is where the church flourishes.”
But it takes more than just addressing the issue—it takes understanding the person, asking “how are you?” and “what can I do to help?”
“We as the church can be a beacon of hope to them,” Dority said.
Many different solutions
Workshops sought to address more focused areas of depression, anxiety and suicide.
The Rev. Kurt Stutler, United Methodist pastor and director of South Main Chapel and Mercy Center in Anderson, gave an overview of mental health first aid training, a national program to teach the skills to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use.
Phil Manley, director of school mental health services and coordinator for Anderson-Oconee-Pickens Mental Health Center, presented tools for suicide prevention and recovery for those impacted by suicide. Manly focused on the SafeTALK training program and the Connect suicide prevention/intervention training, both offered through the South Carolina Department of Mental Health Office of Suicide Prevention.
Tony Johnson, regional executive director of Mental Health America Region 1, spoke on anxiety, depression and suicide prevention in adults, explaining the difference between each issue and the many ways to recognize the problems and how to help.
“Dealing with this is not math, not two and two equals four or four and four equals eight. Just like the high blood pressure medicine you take might be different from those you take,” Johnson said, pointing to two different people, “there are a lot of different solutions for mental health issues.”
Carly Patterson, director of children, adolescent and family services for Anderson-Oconee-Pickens Mental Health Center, spoke on anxiety, depression and suicide prevention in children and adolescents, discussing the differences between typical youth moodiness and the sort of mental health issues that become a barrier to functioning in a major area of their life, such as school, their family dynamic or socialization.
Patterson said Anderson, Oconee, Aiken and Pickens counties are seeing suicide rates double in children ages 10-14, and she noted studies are showing an increase between mental health problems and use of social media.
For more specific resources on how your church can help, visit https://www.nami.org, http://www.sprc.org, https://www.nami.org/namifaithnet, or contact Anderson District Congregational Specialist Cathy Joens at firstname.lastname@example.org.