“Our life is love, peace and tenderness; and bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations against one another; but praying for one another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.”
Isaac Penington, 1667, Quoted in PYM Faith and Practice, 2002

When I was a child, it was clear that my parents, aunts, and uncles related to Uncle Douglas differently than the way they were with the rest of the adults in the family. He lived above my aunt in a quiet apartment with the blinds drawn, took his meals at the same Howard Johnson’s every day, and had no apparent hobbies except collecting religious dolls. Uncle Douglas it seemed had come from nowhere—there were no tidbits of his childhood or stories of his youthful foibles. He was rarely included in joking banter, and conversations lasted only as long as it would take to answer, “How are you?” Uncle Douglas was tolerated, his physical needs were met, but no one seemed to know how to support or express their love for him.

When I became old enough to notice, and brave enough to ask, I was told that Uncle Douglas had suffered a “nervous breakdown” and had not been the same since. Later I learned that he had been a successful radio disc jockey and dated a red-haired actor, but “something happened” and he was sent to an institution where he received some form of treatment. Eventually the relatives opened up, “You’d never believe what he was like back then!” He was dashing—a skilled dancer, dedicated connoisseur of 20’s and 30’s swing music.

No could name what happened to Uncle Douglas as anything other than a “nervous breakdown.” My mother felt that being in the institution did him in; my aunt blamed laziness and said in any case that he just stopped trying. These were hushed back room conversations, not to leave the family, and no one ever discussed Uncle Douglas with Uncle Douglas himself.

Today, we have words that identify various mental illnesses and a bit more willingness to talk about emotional or behavioral health the same way we might discuss diabetes or stroke. We may be willing to accept that mental illness is hereditary or has roots in brain makeup or body chemistry. Nevertheless, have we truly lost our fear and moved from tolerance, to engaged support for those with behavioral or emotional health challenges?

Consider this, from an online community newspaper:
“The…Museum will host a special lecture, ‘The Treatment of Mental Illness: A Historical Perspective’ to ‘explore how attitudes about mental illness and care have changed in the past 200 years,’ according to a statement released by the…board of trustees. It will be held early next year.
The announcement was made in the wake of objections made by some mental health advocates to the ‘Asylum of Terror,’ a haunted house staged as part of the museum’s annual fundraising event. Material promoting the Haunted Mill promised, ‘Dementia, paranoia, violent sociopathic behaviors… these are but a few of the afflictions that torment the wretched souls’ of the asylum.”

Kudos to the museum for hosting the lecture in response to the public outcry, and to those who spoke up, but one must wonder, have attitudes changes that much in 200 years if such an event theme were not questioned to begin with? In talking with Friends about their fears surrounding aging, I have often heard it said, “I can accept anything, as long as I have my mind.” With such pervasive stigma associated with behavioral health differences, no wonder we fear that more than anything else does!

Q: “Is our Meeting supportive and loving toward persons among us who may be struggling with mental illness?”
What can we do as a spiritual community to create a more loving and accepting environment, so that people can feel safe in seeking support when they are facing mental health issues? What is our role in advocating for those with emotional or behavioral challenges?

  • Educate. Stigma is best reduced by knowledge. Seek learning opportunities for your community to provide truthful information about mental illness. See additional articles in our Learning Center for factual information that may challenge common assumptions, as well as the list of further resources.
  • Check your own feelings. Try to understand one’s own assumptions and fears. Exploring how your life experiences and what you have been taught might be affecting your feelings can help you overcome your own resistance and be a better support to others in need.
  • When you feel your attitude is genuinely open, make it known. Be willing to talk. If you have experiences of your own to share, speak openly if you can.
  • Let others know you are concerned. Speak gently, with honesty and integrity. Offer facts and unconditional support, and listen, do not lecture.
  • Know what professional resources are available in your area and be prepared to provide that information. Offer transportation and/or additional support as needed.
  • Your spiritual community probably provides meals for people after the birth of a child, a death in the family, illness or surgery. Have you thought about the same for someone who is struggling with behavioral or emotional health? It may be hard, for example, for someone who is depressed to express gratitude or feel joy, but these gestures from the spiritual community remind us that we are cared for, and loved.

“And thou, faithful babe, though thou stutter and stammer forth a few words in the dread of the Lord, they are accepted.”
William Dewsbury, 1660, Quoted in PYM Faith and Practice, 2002

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More articles on this website:

Anxiety and Change
Care of the Caregiver
Spiritual Approach to Dementia Care

Sources/Further Reading:

Edited by Patricia McBee, Grounded in God, Care and Nurture in Friends Meeting, Philadelphia, Quaker Press of FGC, 2002

Clinton Reed, “Red Mill Museum in Clinton responds to critics of its ‘Haunted Mill,’ plans special program”, Hunterdon County Democrat, November 13, 2009, read article online