Confronting Mental Illness in Monthly Meetings

Today, I meet with a representative of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The nature of my visit is to see what resources they, as an organization, can share with us, the Meeting. A previously established program of theirs exists to educate houses of worship on these sorts of issues. The unique particulars of unprogrammed Quaker Worship and our ways of doing things must first be taken into account. The existing curriculum will need to be modified.    

In a nutshell, here lies the problem. A very vocal minority of our regular attenders and members suffer from severe mental illness. Often they refuse to take medication, despite the fact that seeking treatment would help them substantially. Due to their illness, they routinely act out in a multitude of ways, most of which we have learned to anticipate over the years.

One Friend is perpetually rude and turns Worship into a private soapbox. Another hijacked a committee meeting to harangue Friends about an entirely nonsensical concern. This Friend alternates between deference and respect to accusatory and confrontational behavior. A third refuses to bathe regularly, assuring that others will sit as far away from him as possible. These are only the worst offenders, the ones whose mental illness shows as plainly as an eye of the face.

In the midst of these are Friends whose behavior and general conduct is often erratic. Often, they have never sought formal diagnosis and treatment for reasons entirely their own. Instead, they suffer alone, and the rest of the Meeting takes silent count of their eccentricities and trigger points. The outgoing clerk of the committee I have recently taken under my care noted that, to her, "all Quakers are a little nuts." I'm not entirely sure I agree with her conclusions, but I do respect her insight.

These problems are not limited to one Quaker Meeting or one city on the map. The mentally ill continue to be some of the most stigmatized members of society. Often, they find the Religious Society of Friends out of a desperate desire to belong to and be accepted by anyone. Routinely, they are the most diligent in learning our terminology and ways of doing things, memorizing routine and the most arcane bits of procedure. They would be model Friends, if their periods of acute illness did not create friction and hostility among those with whom they worship.

My committee routinely oversees behavior problems, ones where the usual suspects are to blame. One fire is put out only to have a new blaze rage in its place. Quakers are uneasily confrontational in the best of circumstances. What is meant to be love, patience, and tolerance becomes instead enabling and co-dependent. Established stable and successful precedent, in this context, can be safely deemed an unqualified failure.

I want to educate the Meeting, to find healthier solutions for everyone, mentally ill or not. As I've disclosed several times publicly before, I have bipolar disorder. What has saved me from the same fate as the Friends I've pointed out earlier in this post is my willingness to seek medical help. I take nine different medications a day, and five of them are exclusively for psychiatric medical conditions. Though I experience a few hiccups here and there, I can carry on a largely normal life with only a few impediments standing in my way.

That is to say, I know the potential for greater health that exists. And, if I wish to pull up those painful memories, I know what it's like to be held at arm's length for being mentally ill. As I observe the vocal ministry and behavior of some Friends, I see a partially deformed image of the predominant cultural mindset staring back at me. They want to be activists, proclaiming the grave seriousness of their chosen cause. Mostly, they want to be heard and taken seriously, but their illness removes any veracity and authority they might have otherwise sought.

Action is what is needed now. We have hesitated long enough and if delay were sufficient in and of itself, we would have surely found a solution by now. We need to reexamine ourselves and our priorities. We have the means and the wherewithal, but we cannot justify or allow dysfunction any longer. We may not have created this mess, but we're the only ones who can clean it up.

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Comment by Honour Horne-Jaruk on 5th mo. 20, 2013 at 1:24pm

As a (currently homeless) bipolar, I am part of a family that has some form of mental illness in every current member. Four of us attend Meeting, and the Meeting has convened a "support committee" that has requested I meet with them to "Explore whether the Meeting can meet our unusual needs". I have absolutely no idea what they want or what will happen.

Comment by Clem Gerdelmann on 5th mo. 20, 2013 at 5:08pm

Thankyou, Kevin, for again addressing the challenge("speaking to one's condition"?) for unprogrammed Quakerism in particular and Quaker self-image in general. Hopefully, my latest blog can caution, yet encourage, any progress that would be realized toward the goal of meeting that of God in each of us.

Comment by Matthew Hughes on 5th mo. 21, 2013 at 2:28pm

Dear Kevin – I am so pleased to see your blog and I will try and reply to it at great length at some near point. In recent times I have been fascinated by Friend’s concern for mental health, and have been searching various academic mental health journals on this topic. Friends such as William Tuke, Pliney Earle, and Theophilus Waldmeier contributed enormously in the area of mental healthcare, and there have been many others.

I have also been concerned about how Local Meetings respond to those with mental health problems, especially those whose experiences are vocalised in MfW. I have observed Friends  lovingly allowing space for the expression of what seems delusional thought, and giving a refuge to those who do not fit into communities or faith groups because of the psychological experiences.

I have also witnessed anger and confusion when Friends feel great emotional pain in response to vocalised trauma and suicidal ideation in the context of ministry. Elders and Overseers can feel overwhelmed and perplexed at not knowing how to respond to Friends in psychological distress, as they try and act sensitively and care for those who feel harmed.   

Our contexts are different in terms of mental healthcare services and I’m keen to hear Friend’s experiences of such care provided by there respective governments. In the UK we have a National Health Service, “a universal healthcare system from cradle to the grave, free at the point of delivery”, which is informed by national clinical guidelines on what treatment can be expected for physical and mental disorders.

The nationalisation of healthcare in the UK furthered the estrangement of mental healthcare from religious-faith groups. As acute services shrink in the UK I predict that the mentally afflicted will come knocking on the door of religious groups asking for help, and we will be unprepared. I will write more soon...   

Comment by Laura Scattergood on 6th mo. 25, 2015 at 7:45pm

No need to confront mental illness.  Sometimes it just is.   And no one should have to take their medication to be a Quaker,  some people choose not to have that kind of treatment.  And being mentally ill( by whatever standards or framework NAMI or  the latest version of the  DSM  or whatever cultural framework frames the definition of mental normalcy)  does not necessarily quench the spirit, nor the truth a sufferer may be called to speak.  Even so-called  rants may contain truth, perhaps even greater truth.   Sometimes people just really don't need to be fixed, or they often can't be,  and the response might more properly be acceptance not confrontation. 

Comment by William F Rushby on 6th mo. 26, 2015 at 6:32pm

 I think that there is a very low level of "social density" in many unprogrammed meetings, particularly in urban areas.  By "social density" I mean interconnectedness among participants.

Intervening when a participant, or a couple, or members of a family, or a small group, has serious problems without a strong (meeting) fabric of interpersonal relationships becomes very difficult.  The typical unprogrammed meeting is not "groupy" enough to intervene without outside help.

IMHO doing nothing is not a good option.  A meeting needs to have a support group of other meetings or individuals to address such crises.  Denial of problems may have grave consequences!

I have qualified these comments by referring only to unprogrammed meetings because I have no experience with programmed Friends meetings.  In the Mennonite church we attended for many years (and which I still attend), the leadership would deal with such problems without much hesitation.  That doesn't mean that they would always be successful, but they certainly wouldn't look the other way.


Comment by Forrest Curo on 6th mo. 27, 2015 at 12:06pm

With certain people in any Meeting, it usually comes as no surprize to the others when they temporarily go into a ward now & then.  Some of these people will have embraced the role and identity of  "being Mentally Ill" and some won't; some will be getting along (marginally well) without meds and some will have gone 'Off Their Meds' while still others will be taking them, but without satisfactory results -- whether on the prescribed dosage or having taken more in hopes that their lives will somehow become tractable if they can just get the dosage right.

Most people, including those who suffer such states of mind and those who wish them well, would like to see their problems solved with a pill. This does not happen with self-medication; and it doesn't happen with professional medication either.

Of the many friends and Friends I've known in that category, it seems impossible to name anything whatsoever they have in common that they don't share with the rest of us. They are no more deluded than anyone who believes what he's told on tv, no more pigheaded than many people generally regarded as normal, not necessarily lacking humor nor being any more caught up in themselves. The 'chemical imbalances' once cited to justify medication turn out to be figments where they aren't artifacts of addictive 'treatment'; the brain works naturally to maintain whatever levels of neurotransmitters it's accustomed to. 'Out of touch' -- like the psychiatrist in Ursula LeGuin's _Lathe of Heaven_ -- may be all one can truly say.

Considering an analogous condition like ADD [although it's not 'a disorder'] --That also features exacerbation of traits common to the general population and a wide range of manifestations -- but with ADD there seems to be a specific social deprivation during infancy that will disrupt normal developments, while the case with actual 'Mental Illness' is far less straightforward.

With 'Mental Illness' there's something clearly awry in a person's relation to self and others -- something which can be brought on by pathogens, neurotoxins, and even nutritional deficiencies, but which also occurs with no known cause. (No one's 'fault', but some people do behave better with it than others.)

In the context of a Quaker Meeting, even 'normal' people can produce turmoil; while 'justifying or allowing dysfunction' is pretty much what people do everywhere. The necessary questions are "Whose dysfunction is to be justified or allowed?" and "How are we supposed to prevent that, anyhow?" People everywhere strive to discourage and prevent actual violence to self or others, but wherever else you draw the line, someone will have a foot or two on-or-near.

People habitually do take an initial stance towards a person's statements based on their past batting average... but insight and occasional Inspiration can strike anywhere; simply refusing to listen to anyone "because you're a Designated Crazyperson" would be way out of line. Perhaps there needs to be more _prayerful_ consideration of each person's behavior and proposals, rather than compulsively trying to deal with everything by any fixed policy?

Comment by William F Rushby on 6th mo. 27, 2015 at 1:06pm

Re: Friends and Mental Health--Don't forget the contribution of Friends minister Thomas Scattergood!  See 


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