“We need to keep talking about these issues, we need to keep caring for each other. It’s an issue that’s very close to my heart and an issue I am passionate about.”
Moderator Rev Sharon Hollis backed up those words delivered to a carers’ lunch in Tasmania by attending three Mental Health Week-themed events in three days across two states last month.
At the first two events, held at Hampton Park Uniting Church in Melbourne’s southeast and at Clarence Uniting Church in Hobart, Ms Hollis shared from her family’s experiences of mental health struggles.
Ms Hollis was a carer to her husband Michael, who suffered chronic clinical depression and took his life in 2013.
At Hampton Park, Ms Hollis was guest of honour at the regular Carer Hub lunch that UnitingCare’s Life Assist has run for three years.
Linda, one of the regular attendees, said that if she didn’t have this lunch where other carers and volunteers offer friendship and support, she didn’t know what she would do.
“It’s the highlight of my week. I know that what I say stays here and you know it is safe. There is no judgment,” she said.
Overcoming the stigma that surrounds mental illness was a major theme of the week’s events.
“Mental health is one of the most stigmatised illnesses in our community,” Ms Hollis told the lunch at Clarence Uniting Church, which was organised by the Connections, Craft and Conversation group.
“I think hosting a day like this is great because it helps break down the stigma. It begins to say that, actually, this is a community where we can talk about this.”
Fran, whose adult son lives with schizophrenia, came to the Clarence Uniting Church lunch after reading about the event in The Mercury newspaper that morning.
She said it was important as a carer “to know you’re not alone”.
“The people have been lovely here, really nice,” Fran said.
Ms Hollis told the Clarence event that it was important for churches to create spaces for carers to talk openly and sometimes even to ‘dump on’ others when they were finding it all a bit much.
“It’s such a hard job, this caring role. I think when we speak about it and acknowledge it we actually stand in solidarity with each other,” Ms Hollis said.
On Thursday Ms Hollis took part in a special service at Cross Generation Uniting Church in Heidelberg Heights. The service included participants from the hope springs community mental health support group run by the Banyule Network of churches in Melbourne’s northeast.
In her message, Rev Sandy Brodine said that hope springs was “a place where we are welcomed, where love and compassion is offered to us all no matter who we are or what we do or what we believe”.
“I just want to say I admire the work that you do and I admire the work of the congregation to make this possible. And I admire all of you for showing up,” Ms Hollis told the gathering.
“We underestimate how much courage it takes to show up and it’s a great gift to show up and be present for each other.”
Retired Uniting Church minister Peter Sanders, who began hope springs in 1997, said the program has about 100 participants on any given week, including the volunteer helpers.
He gave this advice to congregations striving to be a friendly and supportive place for those with mental health issues.
“Just welcome them as anybody else with a struggle,” Mr Sanders said.
“Listen, pay attention, just be relaxed. What people are looking for basically is friendship, people who will understand them. I think church people are well placed to do that.
“And include people as much as you can in the normal church activities.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.