Ministries Respond to Mental Health Challenge

It might seem like another activity on Horizon House’s calendar — a discussion about depression, hosted by two geriatric psychiatrists. But for resident Bob Fitzgerald, the forum reinforced the importance of looking after himself and his neighbors.

Diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006, Fitzgerald remembers battling bouts of nervousness and isolation during the treatment. And while he doesn’t have clinical depression, he’s more sensitive to the struggles of his neighbors and friends.

“The forum raised my awareness about my own experiences and the concerns of people around me,” says Fitzgerald, who joined the Seattle, Washington, continuing care retirement community with his wife in 2011. “We have to understand these concerns, because we might otherwise sweep them under the rug.”

The forum was an overwhelming success, he says. “All the residents asked the psychiatrists to come back.”

Discussion groups like this are just one way that Horizon House and other CHHSM ministries provide mental health services amid dwindling resources and an increasing need.

About 43.7 million adults in the U.S. experience mental illness every year, but only about 41 percent of them receive mental health services, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The discrepancy challenges organizations to find creative ways to address mental health.

At Horizon House, for instance, the Rev. Linda Purdy offers both individual therapy and group discussions. The director of spiritual care says that personal connections, and a willingness to listen, are vital.

“We’re always paying attention and listening,” says Purdy, who previously spent six years as a hospice chaplain and now coordinates services with a team of chaplains and social workers. “Often, the most healing thing anyone can do is listen.”

Her discussion groups, which range from gatherings with caregivers to a support group for residents dealing with grief and loss, are helpful, she says. But the county still struggles with limited funding, and a lack of mental health providers only compounds the problem.

“There’s a huge gap in professional mental health services for older adults,” she says. “So our team members step up and fill that hole as much as we can.”

Emmaus Homes, which serves adults with developmental disabilities, also sees the growing need for mental health services. But while the St. Charles, Missouri-based nonprofit receives funding from the Missouri Department of Mental Health, it’s not enough to cover demand. As a result, the organization has shifted services from residential campuses to community homes.

“The trend is to make every attempt to serve people in their natural home, or in a fully integrated community setting,” says Dave Kramer, chief operating officer. “And in meeting that challenge along with being good stewards of our resources, we’re adding new service models along with closing our residential campuses and providing more housing in the community.”

Diane and Rich Alt say their son benefits from this personal, community approach.

The couple moved Andrew, who has Landau-Kleffner syndrome, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder and severe hearing loss, into a small Emmaus group home, and they weren’t sure how he would handle the transition.

“The transition was challenging for everyone, but he’s happy there,” Diane says. “He’s really excelled and matured on his own since the move.”

Purdy says CHHSM ministries will need to continue adapting in the future as the nation addresses mental health challenges. The United Church of Christ even passed a resolution at the 30th General Synod in June to help erase the stigma associated with mental disorders.

“That can be a challenge,” she admits. “But it can also be a gift.”

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