Creating Caring Congregations

An Interview with Reverend Susan Gregg-Schroeder

A supportive faith community can provide hope, support and the feeling of being connected to something bigger: a place where people are accepted for who they are. But unfortunately not all congregations offer this refuge to individuals who are dealing with mental illness or to their family members.

Reverend Susan Gregg-Schroeder shared her personal journey with depression, which first began in 1991 during her third year as a pastor at San Diego First United Methodist Church.

“I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I couldn’t eat or sleep, nothing brought me pleasure and I isolated myself from others. I felt so hopeless that I wanted to end my life. My family and I kept my depression and hospitalizations from the congregation for two years. We suffered in silence.”

Weighed down by the burden of silence and encouraged by her senior pastor, she decided to share her struggles with her congregation. Inspired by her example, 

many others shared their experiences and reached out for help. Susan said:

“I began to see the great need to address mental illness in our faith communities. Mental illness is sometimes referred to as a ‘no-casserole illness.’ People struggling with mental illness are far less likely to receive the same level of care as persons dealing with physical issues. Too often mental illness is greeted with silence, not compassion.”

Determined to make a difference, Susan started Mental Health Ministries in 2001. This interfaith, web-based ministry provides print and media educational resources on a variety of topics to help faith leaders create more caring congregations. “Education is really the key to erasing the stigma that is so strong in our congregations. Faith communities address homelessness, addiction, prison ministry and other social issues without understanding that mental illness is often at the core of these issues. Many do not understand that mental illness is not a moral or spiritual failure but a treatable medical condition. If faith communities are educated they can provide support to their own members and can also collaborate with mental health providers in their community,” explained Susan.

Once mental illness is talked about openly in a congregation, there are different ways to provide care, support and inclusion of all persons into the life of the congregations. Susan’s hope is that her organization can build bridges of understanding between our faith communities and mental health providers and that a person’s faith and spirituality can be a part of their treatment and recovery process.

Does Your Pastor Know?

  • One in five persons sitting in the pews has a family member struggling with mental health issues.
  • Many seminaries do not cover the topic of mental illness. Because of this,some clergy may not be able to provide appropriate support and referral information.
  • 60% of individuals with a mental health issue go first to their spiritual leader for help.
  • Faith communities can be caring congregations for persons living with a mental illness and for those who love and care for them.

Resources

  • Mental Health Ministries provides free print and media resources for faith communities: www.mentalhealthministries.net/index.html
  • San Diego County Suicide Prevention Council Faith Organization Outreach provides resources and education to local faith organizations interested in suicide prevention awareness. Contact Yeni Palomino at ypalomino@sdchip.org for more information.