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They no longer keep arm’s length from issues of mental illness

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (BP)–When Peggi DeLeuil’s son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, she didn’t feel she could confide in anyone — especially someone at church.

DeLeuil’s son, David, had never shown any signs of mental illness until he was diagnosed at 15. He is now 34 and lives in a group home.

“It was very devastating,” she said. “You just don’t know what to do, especially from the financial aspect of getting help because insurance doesn’t cover mental disorders. We could have put him through Harvard with the amount of money we have spent on his treatment.”

DeLeuil, of Huntsville, Ala., said a church can be instrumental in easing the burden just through supporting the family with love, care and concern.

“One thing a church needs to do is to minister to the whole family,” DeLeuil said. “It’s not just the mentally ill person who suffers, but the entire family hurts as well. But no one brings you casseroles or puts you on the prayer list. The stigma of mental illness even in churches is tremendous.

“People know very little about mental illness or how to support families with children who are mentally ill. You don’t want to label a child as mentally ill because it is a horrible experience for families. Many drop out of church because of embarrassment.”

Mary Reeder, a member of First Baptist Church, Huntsville, and director of the Huntsville Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the church should be at the forefront of educating its members about mental illness.

“We aren’t taught about mental illness in schools or even at home,” Reeder said. She likewise felt isolated from the church when her child was diagnosed as a consumer of a mental disorder. “It basically comes from television, movies and the media, but it is usually very inappropriate. Very seldom do you see a character (on TV) who is mentally ill and is shown contributing to society. Every person, without exception, who has recovered or is in a recovery program cites the main reason for their turning point was that someone showed a genuine respect for them. This is where the church can do something for the person.”

Reeder, a longtime children’s Sunday school teacher, lived a nightmare after learning her 12-year-old son was diagnosed with a mental illness. Today he is 39 and living in an apartment on disability.

“I could hardly teach because I felt guilty that maybe it was my fault that my child was mentally ill,” she said. “I didn’t want other people to think that I might be doing something to cause a child to be mentally ill. If a child started crying, I got a sick feeling in my heart.”

Reeder eventually gave up teaching the class, and it wasn’t until some time later she understood her son’s illness was not her fault. She said he was sick often as a child and she knew “something was wrong” for a long time. She finally understood and accepted his illness when he was 14.

“A lot of people are never able to come to grips with their child’s mental illness,” Reeder said. “Many think it’s their fault, but it’s not. When you first learn about your child having a mental illness, you don’t understand it either and you are learning about how to deal with it.”

Reeder and DeLeuil are active in the Huntsville’s AMI group and are instrumental in educating the community about mental illness through programs at schools, civic groups, churches or other organizations.

Jim Hightower, minister for pastoral care at First Baptist, Huntsville, said the key in changing people’s attitudes in the church about mental illness is for laypeople who have experienced it in their own families to speak out about the disease. He suggested that congregations offer programs to give church members that opportunity.

“When you see someone with these disorders, it takes away a lot of the mystery that surrounds them,” Hightower said. “They see the people are very normal, highly functional and deeply spiritual. It helps someone who needs it to say, ‘I can get help.'”

Reeder said she believes congregations need to incorporate mentally ill persons into the mainstream of the church.

“Mental illness tends to break down people’s ability to relate to other people,” she said. “Exercise and love with a small amount of work may be as important to a mentally ill person as setting a broken leg. We have not provided a channel by where the brain can be rehabilitated. It takes longer than we have ever been aware of for the brain to heal or recuperate.”

Both Reeder and DeLeuil have turned their tragedies into opportunities to help others not to have to face mental illness alone as they did.

“I did have spiritual doubts and kept asking, ‘Why did this happen to me?'” DeLeuil said. “You do go through the grieving process, and it has been a spiritual journey for me. It has become almost a calling from God. He can use me to help other people. My mission is to work to help the mentally ill.”

Reeder said she “would not have chosen it” and that she was “forced into my position. It’s not that we are so good by doing what we are doing. My inclination was to distance myself from the issue — until it happened to us, then I could no longer do that. I had to get involved.”

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  • Yvonne Terry White