Once a month, a group of ten to twenty Friends of the Chapel Hill (N.C.) Meeting gather over a potluck meal after the rise of meeting for worship to share our concerns about mental health. We pull tables and chairs in a circle, fill our plates with food, and begin. We call ourselves Friends and Family of Those with Mental Health Concerns or, more simply, Mental Health Concerns. We started meeting in July 2012 at the suggestion of a Friend whose son had recently had a mental health crisis. Standing in worship, she spoke about putting out fires both figuratively and literally. After some silence, another Friend stood and spoke of not feeling the support of the meeting when his son died of a drug overdose. She went up to him after the close of meeting to offer support. As they talked, she suspected others have had similar experiences and also needed support. They were right, and the idea of creating a support group was born. Because I am a clinical social worker with decades of practice, they asked me to help.
I also have had personal experience with mental health concerns, which is probably why I became a psychotherapist. Most of my 20s had been spent watching my younger sister self-destruct and my entire family flounder in turmoil. During those years, I found my way into my own personal therapy and knew the relief of having somewhere to pour it all out. My mother was eager for help as well, which I urged her to find, but she deferred to my father, and he hesitated. He believed firmly that family troubles belong within the family. It was only when a social worker from the local mental health center made a home visit one evening that anything changed. She persuaded my father that she needed his help to lobby the county for more group homes for troubled young adults like my sister. My parents joined a parents group, which proved to be a life-saver for them. This was the 1970s, and this group was one of the early offerings that evolved into the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The support and education my parents received helped them learn what to do—and what not to do—to help my sister. Ten years after her initial suicide attempt, she gained a measure of stability. She had a job she loved and was good at, and she lived independently from my parents. From this experience, I know how desperately families with an emotionally disturbed member need help. I agreed to help organize the group within our meeting.
Our first meeting brought 35 people, a third of which were under the age of 30. Introductions revealed a wide range of interest. One man had two sons with severe problems: one was diagnosed with a bipolar illness, and another had severe drug addiction. A retired couple spoke of their son who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Several young people had grown up with a parent with alcoholism or a serious mental illness. Another was worried sick over her daughter, a graduate student with great abilities, who had had a psychotic break possibly triggered by a prescription medication (this young woman did not believe she was ill, had serious delusions, and had set a date for suicide). Another spoke of his daughter living alone on the other side of the country with no job and with such severe social anxiety it was unlikely she could even seek employment. Despite two suicide attempts, she refused treatment and rarely opened up her true feelings to him.
Our group has been enriched by the occasional presence of some inmates from the local men’s prison. Our meeting participates in a group called Yoke-fellows, which engages in Tuesday evening visits to the prison and brings prisoners out on pass to Sunday worship. In the mental health group, a few have shared stories of poverty, depression, self-medication with illegal street drugs, and other drug-related illegal activities that led to their incarceration. It is clear that prisons have become the overflow site for those with mental illness because too few hospital psychiatric beds exist. They tell us tales of prisoners walking around like zombies due to psychiatric medications that aren’t well-regulated. The stories are horrifying but believable.
The mission of our group is support and education. Because new people join us often, we begin our meetings with introductions and explain our interest in the topic. We decided as a group to choose a topic each month and have one person lead the discussion. For example, the man whose son had died of a drug overdose agreed to speak on substance abuse after we all agreed addiction comes under the mental illness umbrella. He has by necessity become a self-taught expert on addiction, which is often the case. We learn what we need to know to help family members. When we discuss a topic, we are often impressed and amazed to hear what people have learned through painful experience.
One especially rich discussion was led by a 23-year-old woman who has had multiple hospitalizations. She wrote role-play scenarios to illustrate typical dialogue between patient and parent, between patient and doctor, and between patients. This exercise led to a particularly intimate level of sharing that day.
Another member of the group introduced us to the approach of medical doctor Xavier Amador. His book I’m Not Sick I Don’t Need Help focuses on people with unacknowledged mental illness and shows how to get them the help they need. The group member had discovered his work while searching for help on how to relate to her daughter who resisted treatment. We watched a video of a presentation Amador made to a NAMI group and practiced his communication method called LEAP: Listen, Empathize, Accept, and Partner.
A Friend new to our meeting offered to teach us a method called “focusing,” which he had taught to his previous meeting and had been well received there. Those who attended that day found it personally useful and enriching. He will soon offer a forum to the entire meeting on “focusing” with the possibility that he may lead us in a retreat at some future date.
We do ask people to keep what is shared confidential within the group. As we open up our most private and vulnerable secrets, we need to know they will be protected. We share community resources as we learn of them and teach each other ways to promote mental health through healthy communication, conflict resolution, and meditation.
New people continue to join us as the word spreads. Other Friends whose schedules keep them away now have expressed appreciation for what we are doing and wish they could join us. Over the year and a half that we have been meeting, our bond has deepened.
Quakers have a long history of involvement in mental health. In England in 1796, Quaker William Tuke (1732–1819) founded the York Retreat, which pioneered the humane and moral treatment of the mentally ill. At that time, the mentally ill were considered to be wild beasts, and harsh and inhumane treatment characterized most mental asylums. Tuke and the Quakers who ran the York Retreat believed that these patients had as much Inner Light as anyone and deserved to be treated with kindness and compassion. York Retreat became a model for asylums around the world.
American culture still often stigmatizes those who share mental health issues. Honoring the divine in every person surely includes those with mental health difficulties, and as we have learned, most of us have had or will have some personal or family mental health challenges. Learning we are not alone in this struggle provides real comfort: having a community to turn to can make a real difference. We hope that sharing our experience may inspire other Friends to consider the mental health needs of their meeting communities.