This past weekend it was my real privilege to participate in the True City Festival in downtown Hamilton. True City Hamilton is about 12 years old. It is a movement which provides a platform for a broad range of Hamilton-area churches to come together “for the good of the city.” It is a dynamic, multi-generational, faith-filled, cross-denominational network, and I highly commend it to you—either to participate in if you live in or near Hamilton, or to use as a model in your own community.
Jennifer Bowen, Shalem’s Clinical Director, and I curated two sets of dialogues called Hope and Mental Health. Both of these were extraordinary conversations. We were struck by the high level of mental health “literacy” on the part of the participants. What stood out for both Jennifer and me is the sense that new openings are developing for understanding the realities of mental health in relation to the Gospel. Both of our sessions were packed, as were the sessions led by our colleagues in “life-giving housing,” Indwell. Indeed, I would venture to say that there is a shift happening among people of faith in relation to mental health.
A story told in one of our sessions illustrates this shift. Not long ago a young man in a church made a serious attempt at suicide. In response, the pastor scrapped his plans for the next Sunday morning service. Instead, with the permission of the young man and his family, he offered a teaching about psychosis, with a description of what the needs are now of this young and man and his family, and of those who care for him. He outlined what their calling is as followers of Jesus in this respect, and what the congregation could do to provide effective support. He pointed out that no one who attempts suicide or completes it wants to die: instead, they want to end the pain, and they see no other way to do so.
What that pastor did was foster a context for recovery for that young man and his family—a context that faith communities are extraordinarily and uniquely positioned to create. Indeed, the research is clear that relationship and community are vital factors in recovery.
A second story reinforces my sense that new openings are emerging. One of Shalem’s partner churches, Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Etobicoke, recently held two public evening sessions about mental health, one focused on depression and anxiety, the other called “The Four ‘SSSS’: Silence, Stigma, Suicide, and Support.” The church brought in Shalem’s June Zwier to do the presentations. The organizers had no idea how many people would attend. They estimated anywhere between 8 and 15, maybe 20 people. Over 60 people attended one evening; more than 80 people the other evening. Many of the attendees were members of the community who had no connection to the church. Both events were remarkable successes.
Might events such as these have occurred ten years ago in this way? Perhaps. But I suspect not. There are welcome new openings, new bridges being created that link a more nuanced understanding of the Gospel with the realities of mental health. These openings are both overdue and welcome. Faith communities have so much to offer!
Perhaps stories like these are also happening in your community. Do you have a story of meaningful, appropriate, effective care and learning in a faith community context, in relation to mental health and wellness? If so, I’d love to hear it.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is the Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network.