BY LOIS MAHARG
NAMI Washtenaw has made presentations at faith-based venues before. But 2019 began with something new: NAMI Washtenaw conducted a series of four interactive workshops called “A Christian’s Response to Mental Health Challenges” at the First United Methodist Church of Saline, where Darlene Wetzel is a member of the congregation.
“Darlene approached me with the idea to do something at her church,” Bob Nassauer said in explanation of how the series came about. “I was inspired by her to create the curriculum, partnering with her” to co-facilitate the workshops.
The overall goal was to continue the Methodist congregation’s work on destigmatizing mental illness and discuss how to help congregants struggling with a mental health challenge. Sessions 1 and 2 began with slide presentations covering the basics of mental health and mental health crises, and how to discern and respond to warning signs of potential suicide. There was also time for sharing personal stories and small group discussion.
A Session on Anxiety, Depression and Bipolar Disorder
Session 3 was structured differently, more like a seminar. Seating participants in a circle, Wetzel began the session with a question. “As a Christian community,” she asked, “what can we do to help someone who’s struggling with a mental health challenge?”
Group members were quick to offer ideas: form a special group for congregants contending with mental health challenges, develop a system of phone buddies, continue the NAMI presentations. Or just something as simple as sending someone who’s struggling an encouragement card, Wetzel suggested.
She then invited Shari Regner, a member of the congregation, to talk about her struggle with bipolar disorder.
From Symptoms to Management
“My nightmare began in Berlin,” Regner said. She lived in Berlin seven years and found the situation stressful. “One of the triggers was my isolation from friends and family,” she said. The language barrier also contributed to a lack of social support. The first of her symptoms came one morning when she woke up with racing thoughts.
Paranoia was not far behind, followed, over the course of several years, by hopelessness, depression, panic attacks, delusional states, mania, and sometimes hospitalization. The prospect of hospitalization at first was frightening.
“I didn’t seek help because of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” she said, referring to the movie based on a book in which the protagonist is forced to undergo a barbaric form of electroshock therapy. But a hospital stay in Germany was surprisingly enjoyable. As a patient she was offered music therapy and other therapies that helped her uncover a creative streak she didn’t know she had.
Back in the United States, Regner experienced many of the same symptoms and underwent more hospitalizations. Finally, with help from professionals and NAMI’s Peer-to-Peer class, she learned to manage her condition.
“Now I work to manage my condition,” she said, acknowledging this is difficult when she feels herself sliding into depression. “I don’t want to go to work, but I make myself go.” She added that she works in customer service, where she gets plenty of opportunity to interact with other people, which is helpful.
Tips and Strategies
Regner’s story prompted others to share aspects of their own struggles with mental health issues and the management strategies they use. Here are a few:
- If you have trouble finding the energy and drive to get things done, make a to-do list the night before. The next day as you accomplish things you can take pleasure in crossing items off the list.
- When depressive symptoms begin to appear, don’t think of yourself as a submarine sinking deeper and deeper in the water. Instead, view the symptoms merely as waves that may roll over you but won’t make you sink.
- Set up a network of five or six friends you can call when the going gets rough. Create an agreement stipulating that when you call any one of them, they can always say they don’t have time for conversation. But with five or six in the network, one of them will surely be available anytime you need to talk.
Session 4 of the series dealt with care for those serving as caregivers for family members and friends who live with mental health challenges.
NAMI Washtenaw is equipped to lead similar workshops at other churches and faith-based venues. To make inquiries for your place of worship, contact Darlene Wetzel at Dmwetzel1954@hotmail.com or Bob Nassauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.