Sunlight streamed in through the ample windows of The Living Room church in Columbus on a recent weekday. That seemed especially symbolic during a recent informal conversation among several people relaxing in soft, living room-style chairs.
“I feel like we can bring more people to this group partly by them seeing us (in the open),” Kim Graves said.
She referred to members of the confidential Faithful Friends weekly mental health recovery support group.
Local resident Eric Riddle and former Columbus resident and former Presbyterian pastor Tony Roberts launched the outreach, open to anyone with a diagnosed mental condition age 18 and older, in November 2014.
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A number of local pastors and other church leaders have acknowledged through the years that people of faith need to do a better job of addressing mental health issues.
Roberts has been among that crowd. He frequently wrote and spoke locally and nationally about living with bipolar disorder, a condition in which sufferers experience episodes of an elevated or agitated mood known as mania, alternating with episodes of depression.
Twenty to 25 percent of the U.S. population has a diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Faithful Friends meetings include prayer, Scripture, wellness discussions, times of sharing and a praise song.
Recent discussions of the peer-recovery outreach have focused on topics ranging from mental health cellphone apps to the importance of forgiveness for peace of mind. Members embrace both sacred and secular resources.
Riddle is a lay group leader who carefully indicates that the wellness-focused group is not an alternative or replacement for therapy or any other medical treatment, but rather a complementary element. Although he prefers that his and others’ precise diagnoses remain private, he is forthright about his aim.
“My vision with this is for the faith community and mental health providers to sincerely recognize their unique contributions to the holistic wellness of a person struggling with their mental health,” Riddle said.
He and others say it’s tough to guess how far along that process is locally. But a local mental health workshop at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in January attracted leaders from 17 area churches, as well as mental health and community leaders, including Mayor Jim Lienhoop. It left Riddle, also vice president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, heartened and hopeful.
“To see that room full of people was amazing,” Riddle said.
Plus, local churches with large attendance and high visibility, including Community Church of Columbus and St. Peter’s, have bolstered structured, professional counseling programs in recent years, highlighting a priority on mental health. Those efforts tackle everything from abuse issues to addictions.
Riddle has been among those applauding those type ministries and others reaching specifically into holistic wellness, such as a local program called GODfit.
“More (churches) are recognizing that yes, their primary focus still is the spiritual health of the individual,” Riddle said. “But as far as the individual’s physical health, the emotional health, the mental health — they’re beginning to see themselves making even more of an impact in all of those areas.”
The group clings to a central Scripture from Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Members such as Diana Starkey said she long has been open with others about her mental challenges, although she understands others’ fear of facing stigmas and other obstacles.
“When you are centered in Christ, there need be no fear,” Starkey said. “He is my safety. He is my everything.”
Other members such as Judy Taylor say the group regularly affirms God’s love for her, despite a rocky, painful past in which she saw God as being “out to to get me” and disapproving of her human foibles.
“But I know now that I don’t ever have to feel shame again,” Taylor said. “I know I just need to lean on Christ.”
Starkey is clear that “God didn’t make me this way” with mental health challenges. “I didn’t realize while I was growing up that I was (clinically) depressed. I didn’t realize that until I was in my 30s.”
That came when her son was given a mental health-related diagnosis. She learned through early group help to find ways to make changes that would in turn alter her depression and allow the sun to shine in her life.
Graves mentioned that a setting such as Faithful Friends can stir God’s love and presence enough to remove burdens weighing on a person’s mind and spirit.
Riddle, who wants to spawn Faithful Friends groups at other churches, mentioned that he finds God not in spite of his condition, but rather amid it.
“My perspective is that my diagnosis is a gift from God,” he said, “allowing me to bring people out of isolation and into Christian community.”
What: Faithful Friends mental health recovery support group, using discussion, Scripture, prayer, song and other tools to help those 18 and older with a mental health diagnosis.
When: Meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays.
Where: Nondenominational The Living Room church, 1412 Sycamore St. in Columbus.
Information: Eric Riddle at 812-344-0185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.