‘Struggling to live in a world that struggles to understand’
Congregations can provide a place of welcome and embrace for those seeking mental health
Schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, and other
mental disorders affect one in five Americans, according to the Surgeon
General. Despite its prevalence, mental disorders continue to be whispered
about instead of discussed openly, often isolating sufferers and their loved
ones. Yet, illnesses of the brain can affect anyone regardless of age, gender,
economic status, ethnicity — or faith. Although many communities of faith
struggle when dealing with mental health issues, there are organizations,
such as the Interfaith Network for Mental Health (INMH), that are helping to
remove the stigma of mental illness.
“We’re a very small organization,” said Jan Buntz, INMH co-chair. “We’re an
offshoot of the Mental Illness Task Force at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church
(ELCA), which was founded in 1987 by a member who was living with
A few years ago, Buntz happened to visit Mount Olivet during Mental Illness
(now called Mental Health) Sunday. She said, “I have a brother with
schizophrenia and the sermon was so compassionate that I realized that this
was the kind of church that I wanted to be a part of. My father (the Rev.
Willard Lund) is a retired pastor, and sometimes my brother would show up
at our church looking like a homeless person. He would come into the church
and kind of hang out, drink coffee, and pace back and forth. An usher said,
‘Whoa, who is this person?’ and my Dad replied, ‘That’s my son.’”
Buntz met with the pastor, Timothy Fuzzey, to thank him for the sermon and
give him the book, Harnessing the Energies of Love, that her sister, Marcia
Lund, and her father had written. “He already had the book,” she said. “He
said this was one of the few resources available on this subject.” After joining
Mount Olivet, Buntz also became part of its Mental Illness Task Force. When
the woman who had begun the task force retired, Buntz said she’d agree to
chair it on one condition: “I said I would do it only if Barb Holmquist, who
worked in Mount Olivet’s Caregiver Program, would chair it with me.”
Holmquist, a longtime member at Mount Olivet, began working in pastoral
care in the 1990s. “I knew nothing about mental illness,” said Holmquist. But
she was no stranger to pain: Her mother was diagnosed with cancer when
Holmquist was in high school and died a few years later. Then her father was
stricken with Alzheimer’s when he was in his sixties.
“I had a friend who worked in pastoral care at Mount Olivet and when she left,
she said I should apply and that’s where I learned about mental illness. The
people on the Mental Health Task Force taught me everything I know.” When
Holmquist left Mount Olivet for another job five years ago, she agreed to
continue to co-chair the task force.
Four years ago, Buntz and Holmquist were brainstorming about how to get
the information about mental health out into the community. “Jan had the
idea of finding out what other churches are doing with mental health,” said
Holmquist. “I jumped on it right away!”
“So many faith communities are doing things in mental health,” said Buntz.
“Why not bring them together so we can learn from each other? We invited
the members of other faith communities to Mount Olivet for a luncheon and
this eventually became the Interfaith Network for Mental Health.” Its steering
committee includes members of the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran
communities. “We meet in September, December, February, and May. During
each meeting we have lunch, fellowship, and have a presentation around a
topic,” said Holmquist. “Right now there are about 30 faith communities
involved. There are a number of Catholic churches, Greek Orthodox
[parishes], and various Jewish and Protestant groups,” said Buntz.
Suicide, which is one tragic aspect of untreated mental illness, was the topic
for December’s INMH meeting at Luther Seminary. The gathering of about 90
people included clergy, parish nurses, mental health care professionals, and
family members who had lost loved ones through suicide.
Hollie Holt-Woehl, INMH task force member and adjunct professor at Luther
Seminary, opened the gathering. She said, “I saw an obituary for a young man
that read, ‘He struggled to live in a world that struggled to understand him.’
That was the clearest description of someone who died by suicide as you can
The meeting’s speaker, Corinne Chilstrom, lost her 18-year-old son to
suicide 24 years ago. She traced the powerful and poignant journey that she,
her husband (Bishop Herb Chilstrom) and their other children have been on
since that time. She said, “In grief, we are broken and we can become cynical
and bitter. But through our faith we can become whole and we can even laugh
and love again.” The experience led her to write a book, Andrew, You Died
Too Soon. “When people are in that much pain, their vision narrows and their
thinking becomes disordered. They just want relief from the pain,” said
Chilstrom. “What survivors need are your friendship and your remembrance of
their loved one. When we’re in grief, we have to tell our story and we need
someone to listen.”
As the Interfaith Network for Mental Health continues its outreach, it serves
as a reminder that faith communities are in a unique position to combat
prejudice and provide acceptance for people living with mental illness and
their loved ones.
For more information about the Interfaith Network for Mental Health and its
upcoming meetings, contact Jan Buntz at email@example.com.
issues of mental health
When Your Family Is Living With Mental Illness by Marcia Lund. Augsburg
Books, 2002, 64 pages, paperback. $6.99.
Harnessing the Energies of Love: A Practical Guide for Active Befriending by
Willard and Marcia Lund. Conflux Communications (608/238-3578), 1999,
250 pages, binder. $35.00.
Andrew, You Died Too Soon by Corinne Chilstrom. Augsburg Books, 1993,
140 pages, paperback. $11.99.
“Grace Matters” (www.grace matters.org/): “Concern for Broken Things,”
October 12, 2008. In this edition of “Grace Matters,” host Peter Marty
explores his own up-close experience with a mentally ill brother, and what it
means to trust in a Lord who cares as much about broken lives as whole
ones. He interviews Seattle chaplain Craig Rennebohm. Listen to or download
the program from the Web site, or order a CD of the program.
NAMI Minnesota. According to the Web site, “The National Alliance on Mental
Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota is a nonprofit organization dedicated to
improving the lives of adults and children with mental illness and their
families. NAMI MN offers programs of education, support and advocacy, and
supports research efforts.” For more information, visit www.namimn.org.