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Engaging Mental Health

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is primarily known for serving the homeless community from their location on 2nd and Washington in Pioneer Square. Some of the individuals they serve have unique challenges such as addiction, a history of abuse and mental illness. While there are plenty of resources and services that provide counseling for addiction and abuse, there is limited support for those suffering with mental health issues.

In 2012, the Mission along with another non-profit called Metropolitan Improvement District, decided to step into the gap and hire street outreach program director- Larry Clum. Clum has been at work in the field for the past 15 years as a community mental health clinician, emergency room social worker and is now with the Mission. He believes there are ways we can improve the lives of those living with mental illness through legislation, but he also wants to create a clubhouse program in Seattle. Clubhouses are not halfway houses or drop-in centers, but are programs intended to provide honor and dignity through engagement in the community through employment and other opportunities.

I recently had the opportunity to walk through Pioneer Square with Clum and his colleague, the newly hired, Ryan Likes. Both exhibit genuine compassion for those with mental illness and a passion for educating the general public and the Church on how to engage this unique community. They believe lives can be deeply changed through “time-rich engagement”, and that simply starts with a friendly hello. It seems like a very simple, yet very difficult step, but the difficulty comes from misunderstanding and a fear of the illness, itself. Clum says, “Mental illness is not the result of a moral failure, spiritual weakness or sin. It is a brain disorder which begins with neural-transmitter dysfunction in the brain, can be caused by environmental trauma or genetics- bottom line. It’s important to know that people who struggle with mental illness do have moral failures, but let’s not attach that to the cause of their brain disorder, which (unfortunately) still happens today.”

Through simply asking someone, “How are you today?” you offer normalcy and a sense of humanity to someone who lives in the narrative that they are different, unstable and even dangerous. If that person is someone that you see on a somewhat regular basis, this simple step can be life-changing. The life it changes might even be your own. Clum continues, “What folks with mental illness really need from people in the Church is companionship. The most devastating impact of mental illness is separation from others in society- it’s not even the illness itself- it’s the isolation and loneliness.”

Clum told me a story of an individual that through time he has built a relationship with, enough so that he takes him golfing once a month. He usually resists during the whole ride to the course to which Larry replies, “You know what? I have bad days too.” But through gentle persistence, once they reach the course, the gentleman’s face lights up and he asks, “What club you gonna use on this?” He comes to life, because he can engage in something other than his illness and combat the voices he hears.

While Larry is a professional, he notes that anyone can just start up a conversation with a simple hello. “You do need boundaries, but even [saying a hello] one time a week or once a month can be life saving. That’s what we can do as a church- we can mobilize.”

To further educate- Larry and Ryan are more than willing to come talk to congregations, small groups and even take individuals on a tour through Pioneer Square. A final insight he shares comes from looking at the Bible, “Look at the prophet Jeremiah, who was suicidal, yet God used him- or Jonah, and other’s narratives in the Bible, God used them mightily.” God cares for those in the margins, it is a constant theme throughout scripture- how should the Church care for and love those suffering with mental illness?

Please feel free to comment below.

If you or your congregation would like to reach Larry to speak or set up a time to tour Pioneer Square, feel free to contact him.

Nathan A. Ryan

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