One of the principal responsibilities when you start anything is to allow it to be easily reproduced by others. I started the Serious Mental Illness Peer Support Group at my church to fill a need I could see in our congregation & our community. I was inspired by my son’s diagnosis of schizophrenia to reach out to others who were suffering either from serious mental illness, or caring for someone who has a SMI. (Serious Mental Illness)
This is a hard walk. It is an often sorrowful walk. If you have been down this road you understand the pain. That pain can be a powerful blessing to others as it can provide them the comfort of knowing they are not alone and perhaps even more importantly, that there is hope, that the pain will pass and life can return to normal. That others have traveled the path that they now find themselves on. And I have found that there is something beautiful and Christlike when a person who has fought a serious mental illness for decades opens their arms and hearts and wisdom to someone who is just starting out in their diagnosis. That in itself, blesses those in attendance, the pain becomes a purpose and it is healing to help others. This ministry is such a blessing.
Starting a mental wellness peer group is actually rather easy, especially if you already have a church to back your calling. For me, I did. I went to my Pastor and explained to him what I wanted to do. I wanted to hold weekly meetings in the Fellowship Hall for those that were dealing with bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD etc. My Pastor gave me the green light shortly after.
Weekly we meet at 6 PM on Friday night. I bring cookies or other treats and one of my regular attendees gets there early and makes the coffee before hand. The other members filter in and often bring their loved ones with them. In the safety and compassion of our group we discuss all of the things we cannot just tell others. We talk about medication, we talk about symptoms of these illnesses that perhaps may make others unaware of what mental illnesses do uncomfortable in general conversation. But in our group, we understand all of it, because we are living through it as well. We talk about personal experiences in mental hospitals, jails, and the sadness and frustration often felt by those with mental illness about not being heard, understood or accepted.
We minister to each other. There is not a therapist, a psychologist or a psychiatrist. This is peer counseling. It is a powerful addition to professional psychiatric services but never meant to be a replacement for such. I lead the group, my job is to maintain order, keep the conversation flowing and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Anyone can lead a peer group. You just throw out a topic to the group and let them pass it around filtered through their own personal experiences. The advice and support is invaluable, and as I stated earlier, I truly feel it blesses the members to be able to use their pain to console others. It gives them a purpose for that pain. It is beautiful to experience.
It is important to always refer to your group as a peer group. Do not represent your group as professional therapy or yourself as a therapist. You should also do a little research beforehand and find a few places that you can refer any individual who is in the middle of a mental health crisis to for professional intervention. Suicide is a major symptom you will be dealing with and you need to know how to approach it properly. These numbers should include any local psychiatric service centers. If your area has a 211 function, don’t be afraid to use it. Not all areas do, 211 is like an emergency response number for psychiatric emergencies, when called a crisis intervention team will respond instead of law enforcement. There are also some free services I would suggest you take advantage of one particularly good course is offered nationwide free of charge and is called Mental Health First Aid. You may use their site to find a class near you by clicking here.
Because I was called into Ministry before this became my specific purpose in the Kingdom, I have easily transferred those Pastoral skills I learned for traditional ministry onto this specific need. I keep a list of attendees and group members that I pray for daily. I care for them with a deep compassion that I know Christ has placed into my heart. I have a strong desire to listen to them, to hear their voice and understand their personal struggles. I have a compassion for them like I have never experienced in my life. It is like God created me to take care of them spiritually, to cover them in prayers, and protect them through scripture and encourage them through the Word.
Every member has my phone number and they know 24-7 if they need me I am only a phone call away. I am a minister to their needs. Minister means servant. They do have specific needs. The need that they desperately need most is to be connected spiritually to the hope, power and strength that a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ can bring to their lives. If this is a ministry you are interested in starting in your church I would love to help you in any way that I can absolutely free of charge.
I think this is a calling that the church must address. We cannot wait another second hoping that someone else can take the initiative in this particular area. The government is failing them, society is shunning them, and in the end they are not being cared for the way Christ directs us as Christians to care for the weak, the vulnerable, the sick and the incarcerated. Those terms all can describe those that live with serious mental illness in America. In fact, 2/3 of the homeless in America are homeless because they have mental health issues that are untreated. People with schizophrenia and bipolar have a 10 X higher suicide rate versus someone without SMI. The jails and prisons have replaced the traditional mental asylums and literally hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people are being warehoused in them across the U.S. in lieu of receiving proper psychiatric treatment in a hospital. In WV where I live there are 16,000 people with schizophrenia and only 260 hospital beds to serve their needs. They have been neglected, ostracized, and persecuted against. The Bible warns us over and over again to protect those that are vulnerable to persecution and exploitation, to visit them, to care for them, to minister to them. Have we been successfully ministering to this vulnerable population correctly? I think not, but there is always hope in Christ to change that!
When a member of our church gets hurt or is hospitalized the Pastor makes a visit to the hospital to cheer them up and encourage them with fellowship. When a member of the congregations mental health requires hospitalization the family often hides it out of embarrassment or shame due to stigma. This is a shame, that suffering family needs the love and support of Christ just as badly. They need to know that their loved one is being prayed for and is accepted. This is a ministry of breaking down barriers that have separated Christ’s love and compassion for all in times past. Families need to feel that their church is behind them and that they are receiving the same support if their child developed schizophrenia as they would if their child developed cancer.
If you are interested in this ministry please feel free to contact me and I can guide you, completely free of charge, in starting your own mental health outreach for your community and congregation. If you are interested in having me speak to your congregation or at a conference I would love to do so and share what the Lord is doing through this ministry. He is moving in big and mighty ways! Call, email, or connect I look forward to hearing from you. May God bless you and yours…
Sincerely In Christ,
Phone : (304) 305-0819
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