Mental Health Champions: Companions Along the Way
There are “friends” who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. – Proverbs 18:24
Covenant is committed to supporting people who are working on mental and behavioral health through a program called Bridges to Care San Antonio (BTCSA). Our faith community agreed to bring together people interested in partnering with those who are working on mental and behavioral wellness. BTCSA is calling these members of our faith community Wellness Champion and they: “Will be trained to help provide support both within the faith community and in neighborhoods.”
In an earlier article, we discussed what mental and behavioral wellness might look like. This article will focus on what it is to be a champion and what a companion might look like.
Definition of A Champion – two parts of speech
If we look up the definition of Champion, we find that it is both a noun and a verb. The noun has two parts: 1. a person who has defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition, especially in sports: “ a champion hurdler” and 2. a person who fights or argues for a cause or on behalf of someone else: “a champion of women’s rights” The verb has one: 1. support the cause of; defend: “priests who championed human rights”.
The noun has both a self-oriented and an other-oriented definition. The former focuses on individual achievement and competition. Other-oriented definition focuses on the needs of others. It is the second definition of Champion that is at the heart of BTCSA and it is an aspect of Agape- the self-giving love of Christ. It is the kind of Champion who “supports the cause of” people with Mental and Behavioral Wellness issues by becoming companions and/or taking their cause to the community, willing to use whatever knowledge, skills and abilities one has in service to others.
What is it to champion those seeking mental health?
Championing the cause of mental wellness has many facets. It is being aware of the struggle’s others are going though, helping make mental health resources more accessible to them and cultivating the skills, to walk with people who are seeking wellness. Awareness is simply recognizing that both people in our community and neighborhood have issues in their quest of wellness. It is helping the community recognize the needs of those working toward mental and behavioral wellness and our common humanity. Accessibility means having an open door to both our faith community, the neighboring community and the city’s community resources. It is a swinging door that allows us to walk with others into the larger community to find resources and facilitate access to those resources. It means having a receptive faith community that feels safe to those on the way to health. Ability means, we have skills that we can share that are helpful, relevant and uplifting. They may be financial resources, our use of our time in advocacy, or being a good companion to them. It means having something others need and can use to continue to grow in their quest.
Champions as Companions
Central to BTCSA’s championing those who are working toward mental wellness is a four-hour class on being a companion to those who are in the process of becoming mentally and behaviorally well. It underlines the importance of having a safe community to which one belongs and how volunteers can help develop such a community. So, what is a companion?
A Companion – According to Webster, a companion come to “Middle English: from Old French compaignon, literally ‘one who breaks bread with another’, based on Latin com- ‘together with’ + panis ‘bread.”’
In discussing Galatians 2:1-18: Phillip Long, Grace Christian University states, – “The importance of table fellowship is often underestimated by the modern reader. But in the ancient world, to share the table with another person was making a social statement about yourself and about your guest.”
“Jesus understood what it meant socially to sit down and eat a meal with someone, therefore when he chose to eat with someone that was a part of the “underclass” he was crossing a social boundary in order to meet a spiritual need.”
Similarly, being a champion/companion is a call to set aside or to rethink our preconceived ideas about the worth of those struggling with Mental wellness and, like Christ, break bread with some of the outcasts.
The Practice of Companionship
The Rev. Jermine D. Alberty (December 3, 2019) outlines five practices that make up much of companionship: Hospitality, Neighboring, Side-by-Side, Listening, and Accompaniment. He says:
“Hospitality creates a safe space, offering rest and refreshment in an often tense, confusing, and traumatic world.”
In the Middle East – in the Arab communities of the Middle East tradition requires people to grow grapes, dates and olives so they always have something to offer visitors or strangers in need. Visitors may be friends or family. Often, they are strangers. The tradition reaches back to days in which Arabs were nomads and having something to eat and drink was literally a matter of life and death. Travel was from one oasis to another and those who controlled the water, controlled the wealth. If oases were not safe, people did not survive. Hospitality created safe spaces where weary, thirsty and hungry travelers were welcomed. It was a responsibility of the haves who owned the water toward the have nots. Those travelling toward mental health often need oasis in our modern world. They need hospitality.
“The practice of neighboring invites us to discover what we have in common with one another, set aside our power and privilege, and meet as equals.”
In India- in Hindu culture, the Dalits (untouchables) were told for centuries that they were not human, had no soul and had no God. They were treated as outcasts, earning a living doing daily tasks that were considered “unclean” Literally, working for table scraps that might feed their family for one day. They were highly stigmatized. In some ways, those struggling with mental wellness are our equivalent to the “untouchables.” They are our outcasts: considered so much different than mainstream society that they have been locked away, either physically or emotionally by the majority of us. If not hospitalized, many make up the “street people” we drive past every day, without seeing or thinking long about. It is hard for us to see them as people like us with the same needs, dreams and concerns as ours. They seem so much different that we could never understand them. But what if, just maybe, they are human, like us, have souls like us and are of concern to God, like us. Like the Beautiful Minds Coalition, BTCSA hopes to increase our faith community and our neighborhood’s awareness of our shared humanity and make a place for them at our table.
“The practice of sharing the journey side-by-side helps us to look out at the world together, not imposing our priorities on the other.”
Existential philosopher, Albert Camus-, is said to be the author of the poem, “Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” Though the authorship is sometimes disputed, the meaning is rarely in doubt. It emphasizes the importance of friends. As humans, we are people oriented and, as Psychologist Steven Porges has shown, during times of stress, we tend to reach out to others for comfort, support and understanding. This is the primary role of a companion in the BTCSA program; the primary role of a Mental Health Champion. It does not require a degree in mental health to be a friend, a support, an encouraging and a respectful presence. During the community mental health movement in the late 60’s, one line of research showed that peers were more effective than professionals in supporting those with mental health issues. Things that made them effective were their availability, their respect for others and their caring. BTCSA hopes to develop a cadre of people of faith who are willing to walk beside.
“The practice of listening opens us to another’s story, hearing the other’s account without judgment.”
On listening-During a staff meeting in a local social service agency, the following was said, “All we can do is listen.” The implications were that listening was not enough. In reality, listening and really being heard have a strong impact on all of us all. The now famous Adverse Childhood Experiences studies from Kaiser-Permanente and the Center for Disease Control shows the impact of listening on physical health, mental health and drug usage. By including questions about early childhood traumas in the intake procedures and providing a safe place to talk about them, Kaiser-Permanente found a 45% reduction in the use of their Health, Mental Health and Substance Abuse programs. Many people reported that the intake was the first time in their lives that they had felt safe enough to talk about their traumatic experiences. The impressive thing is that these results were found after one visit with somebody who was willing to just listen, all they did was listen without judgment or condemnation and it released healing in people’s lives.
“The practice of accompaniment is sampling walking alongside the other, supporting the individual through connecting them with community resources to build a circle of care.”
A San Antonio Officer- “I wouldn’t have stayed if you had not been with me the night I went to the hospital.” said the police officer who was discussing his recent treatment for alcohol abuse. He had called about 11:00 pm, reporting that he had finished his second six pack of beer after getting off work- an hour before. He thought he might have a problem and was willing to get help to regain wellness. His issue that night was that one of the people he saw at the hospital as he was checking in was a man, he had arrested several times for substance abuse. He was afraid of being recognized and embarrassed by the man. It was only the extra support of having somebody present that gave him the encouragement to stay that night. As it turned out, he and the man he was afraid of were in the same counselling group and became good companions to one another. His is not an unusual story. Frequently, all a person needs are a little support to get themselves further down the path of wellness.
BTCSA has as part of its mission to:
-I can’t be a companion; I don’t have any mental health experience.
-Besides, those people scare me.
-I don’t know where to start.
-What do I say after I say hello?
The BTCSA training answers these questions and concerns. In addition to raising our awareness and knowledge, identifying resources and needs in the community to facilitate accessibility and encourage the development of “people skills” that are important in any relationship, the BTCSA training covers the critical areas of suicide prevention and Psychological First Aid. It provides a cadre of support for the Champion as well as the people on the path to wellness.
Until training consider this: what do you say to any new person you meet and want to get to know? – that’s where to start. That’s what you say after you say, hello.