Your (Small) Community Can Change the Narrative on Mental Illness

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Wichita, Kansas, to speak at a banquet celebrating and supporting HopeNet, a nonprofit organization that has brought hope to Wichita for more than 25 years. HopeNet provides counseling services at reduced rates (based on income level) for as little as $15 per session. The organization also offers spiritual direction, retreats, and coaching. Their staff lead seminars and training workshops for groups interested in learning more about mental health and compassionate care. In 2015, HopeNet served more than 600 individuals and families in crisis. And in 2017, they’re on track to help 1000.

While I was there, I had the privilege of meeting many compassionate, caring people, including HopeNet’s staff, partners, and financial supporters. I got to share my story, and some encouraging words, with everyone in attendance. And I was very happy to hear from the others who spoke that evening–a basketball coach, a police chief, and a first responder who told how HopeNet had helped him address post-traumatic stress disorder.

The basketball coach was Mark Potter, but everyone there called him “coach.” He recently retired from coaching the team at Newman University, after 19 years. He shared his story of battling depression and learning that his experience could inspire and help others. Now he plans to spend his retirement spreading that message.

The police chief was Gordon Ramsay, but everyone called him “chief.” Less than two years into his job, Ramsay spoke of his recognition that his department is on the front lines of mental health care–and often functions as the last resort for connecting people with the care they need. He talked about his plans for all officers to receive thorough training and discussed ways the police department is partnering with other community organizations to promote a better support network.

I’m always encouraged when I see evidence of this kind of cooperation, mutual understanding, and synergy within a community. Now, I’m not being naive. Wichita is a city of nearly 400,000 people, and only about 0.1 percent of its population was in the room that night. I know they haven’t mobilized the entire city to learn about mental health issues, care about people affected, or respond in productive and compassionate ways. But HopeNet formed an inspired community in that banquet room, and that’s all it takes to change a prevailing story.

For so long, the dominant stories about mental illness have been hopeless stories. They have been stories of tragedy, loss, confusion, and fear. They have reflected our civilization’s historical mythologies around mental disorders, and they have perpetuated the idea that manifestation of symptoms of mental illness means, essentially, the end of a life worth living. These are terribly incomplete stories. They leave out God’s love and care for all people. They forget we all have value and purpose. They neglect to mention that recovery is possible, redemption is real, and one day’s broken dream can give birth to the next day’s brand-new reason for living. They overlook the fact that God has given us the means to help one another.

A change in narrative can start with one person, but it takes a community to listen, speak openly, respond well, and spread the word. It doesn’t have to be a large, incorporated, or even organized community. But it needs stories, and it needs listeners. It needs people who can point the way to a better way and advocates who will spread the vision. It needs people of action who are ready to get out there and put hands and feet to a new story.

Our churches could be transformed–and through them, the love of Christ made very real–through communities like these. Will you start a community in your own sphere? Will you share, listen, respond, or act in concert with others to change the predominant narrative into a story of help and hope? Who knows? You just might rewrite your own story.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.