By David A. Lichter
This issue of Vision features several articles on mental health issues. The graphic is the head of an individual depicted as a puzzle with many parts that need to fit together. Perhaps you and I feel that way at times, when our own mental health is challenged by loss, depression, stress, or fatigue. I know for myself in these times, words such as lost, drifting, flat, confused, and bewildered come to mind.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that one in five Americans will be affected by a mental health condition in their lifetime. They also state the obvious: that every American is affected by family and friends who experience mental health challenges. In my own extended family, people have committed suicide or needed diverse mental health services. But their situations were not always addressed openly and persistently. Some family members suffer the debilitating residual effects of losing a loved one to suicide or have their own mental health issues. How painful it is, and often how helpless one feels, in the face of their ongoing struggles. I don’t think our family is unique in this.
Given the prevalence of mental health challenges, it’s good that we devote a Vision issue to this topic. Did you know that among our 2,100-plus NACC members, only 11 identify themselves as associated with a mental health institution? That seems so few. However, I suspect that category might be too narrow for members to self-identify with it. When we think about all the diverse places where mental health services can be received, they can include hospital inpatient settings, general medical or surgical hospitals (with psychiatric or inpatient drug/alcohol rehabilitation services), residential mental health treatment, psychiatric hospitals, intensive outpatient programs, or partial hospitalization programs. I am sure you can add other settings where you work with individuals challenged with mental health issues, such as PTSD.
I recommend a July 2016 study by NAMI, titled “Engagement: A New Standard for Mental Health Care.” This document was the result of a two-day listening session and subsequent interviews with experts around the topic. It begins with the dismal data that 70 percent of those who seek mental health care drop out after their first or second visit. The study provides examples and cases of how that first engagement between those needing help and their service providers sets — or fails to set — the tone for a healthy, long-term helping relationship of trust and respect.
The study helps me appreciate even more the gifts of chaplaincy, and how so many of you engage people with mental health challenges with the trust, respect, and dignity that help them face their challenges and avoid further traumas. The study points out, “When the door is shut on engagement, too many people leave school, lose jobs, get arrested, become homeless, or attempt suicide.”
I am grateful for your spiritual care profession and the many ways your ministry supports providers of mental health services, as well as those needing care. We have tried a few times to create a network of our members whose ministry addresses mental health challenges. Perhaps these articles might stir interest among some of you to see the value of such networking. If so, please let me know.
David A. Lichter, D.Min.