Shining the Light on Mental Health

Sheron Sumner   -  

Mental health is a level of psychological well-being where one is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and psychological adjustment in their daily life. One enjoys life, enjoys a balance of work and family life, can cope with stressors, works productively and realizes their potential. Simply, it is defined as the way we think, feel and relate to others. Mental illness affects our thinking, mood, and behavior, and is the leading cause of disability in the world.

Mental illness affects one in four adults in America. More than 1.5 million North Carolinians have a mental health condition and only about 4 in 10 people with a condition received any treatment this past year. About two million people with mental illness are booked into jails every year. Mental health struggles have risen significantly over the last 2.5 years, especially anxiety disorders. Following COVID, death, personal loss, grief, isolation, and disruption of normality for everyone have contributed to a 40% increase in mental illness.

This crisis has had a huge impact on our children, teens, and young adults. Suicide rates have surged 40% and are the second leading cause of death among 15 to 24-year-olds. Teen visits to the emergency room for self-harm rose 88%. Managing mental health crises for teens and their parents is unchartered territory and can be very challenging for all—schools, families, community agencies, and faith communities.

The mental health system in America and our community are overburdened. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the demand for services exceeded the need and service availability. The model for service has been broken for more than 20 years since mental health hospitals were closed, service systems were eliminated, and attempts were unsuccessfully made to establish services at the community level. There have never been enough resources allocated to the community model to establish an adequate level of mental health community services.

TURN THE LIGHTS ON! When something is important in our culture, we tend to “shine the light on it”, and make more people aware! We have been living in the darkness about mental wellness for too long. A “lights out environment” creates more stigma, increases barriers to treatment, limits compassion and support, stagnates recovery, and forces a continuing darkness on those affected. As many studies have highlighted, limited mental illness educational opportunities and high levels of stigma prevent many individuals with a condition from accessing mental health treatment and/or support.

But there is HOPE for those who suffer mental health conditions. Turning the light on helps! Mental illness is complicated; after decades of research an effective sick-care system for mental illness does not exist. Studies show that 90% of all people who receive best practice care demonstrate a reduction in symptoms and improved productivity. The “fix”, however, demands a rethinking of the problem and a focus on solutions that move to prevention, healing, and recovery rather than medical care during the crisis (Insel, T., Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health (2022). Recovery and remission are possible—life may be a new normal, but a full and meaningful life.

Where is God in all this? How can faith and spirituality help those with a mental health condition? How has mental illness been accepted in the church, particularly at White Memorial Presbyterian in Raleigh? What is the role of the faith community going forward?

White Memorial Presbyterian Church does care. First, a Task Force led by Sheron Sumner, and now, a Mental Health and Wellness Ministry Team led by Penny Carlo are asking the above questions. They are discerning how White Memorial will “shine a light on mental illness” for recovery and support of both individuals and families who face mental illness darkness. The ministry team is a part of Congregational Care and includes Jean Williams, Congregational Nurse as staff liaison. You are invited to join the team if this ministry is a  way you wish to serve, support, and nurture others.

We strive to offer educational opportunities and awareness about mental illness and wellness. The blog initiative was started to help fulfill that goal and to share with others in our church. We welcome your participation in sharing and writing your story and of course, becoming a regular reader for an increased understanding of mental wellness.

People with mental illness are our neighbors and our brothers and sisters in Christ. If 200 people attend Sunday morning worship, 50 attendees may have a mental health condition based on statistical probability. This means we most likely have several people sitting near or beside us who experience mental illness. How do we respond to those who live with mental illness? What messages do we convey? We need to learn the path to loving them well and become a church that loves God with whole hearts and whole souls, and to love those with troubled minds and psychotic moods with all of the compassion and strength we have. Let your light shine brightly!

Sheron K. Sumner, Ph.D.

If you would like to be involved with our Mental Health and Wellness ministry, or if you would like to talk with someone, contact Sheron Sumner, or Penny Carlo,