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Support groups help break the mental health taboo in Orange County churches

Jerry and Jo Ann Pyne listen to support group members share about their struggles. The couple lead a twice monthly support group meeting at St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Cypress for people with family members who suffer from mental illness.
Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC
Jerry and Jo Ann Pyne listen to support group members at the twice-monthly meeting they lead at St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Cypress for relatives of people with mental health problems.

The push by evangelists Rick and Kay Warren to persuade religious leaders to start attending to their congregations’ mental health needsis gaining some traction, following their second large conference on the topic last month. At St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Cypress, change came even before the Warrens' initiative, thanks to a church deacon and his wife.

Jerry and Jo Ann Pyne were on an emotional roller coaster for 30 years. Their daughter Jana was rebellious, abused alcohol and drugs and went long stretches without being able to hold a job.

They didn’t know what was going on. They felt like bad parents.

Jerry says when Jana was about 33, she called him one day at work. 

"She ... said she wanted to commit suicide. That was the first time," he says. " Oh my God, I just was absolutely shocked." 

It took another 10 years before Jana, now 47, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. To better understand what that meant, Jerry says he and Jo Ann took a 12-week course for families through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

"I was always angry with [Jana] because I couldn’t understand why she could do so well at things and never finish," he says. "It wasn’t until we went to NAMI family-to-family, that I had an epiphany that it wasn’t her, it was the disease."

The couple went on to get trained by the organization to lead support groups.

"So many" suffering in the pews

That got the Pynes thinking about their church. They had never sought help from the church because they didn’t feel religious leaders would know what to do or say, Jerry says.

They went to their priest at St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Cypress, where Jerry is a deacon. Jo Ann says the priest approved their request to start a support group.

"There are so many people in our pews sitting there suffering from the sadness, the frustration, the anger, and have nowhere to go," says Jo Anne. Now "they at least know ... there is a place they can come and talk."

It became the first mental health support group in the Orange County Catholic Diocese.

The group meets twice a month. Jerry always opens with a prayer. On a recent weeknight, he asks "our Lord Jesus Christ to help us through the difficulties of having some one with some kind of mental illness in our families, help us to be strong."

People take turns telling their stories about trying to help family members with mental illness. Some are parishioners, others are referred by the Alliance on Mental Illness or social service agencies.

One member of the group, Gladys, asks to be identified only by her first name. She says her son is bipolar and in denial about his condition, although lately he has been taking his medication. 

Gladys is grateful but anxious; she's had to call the police on her son in the past, and to compound matters, she's been grieving since February for her daughter she lost to cancer.

"Right now it’s going really well but there’s this part of the back of me that’s waiting for the other shoe to drop," she tells the group.

"We know that very well," says Jerry, reassuring her that she is not alone.

"I keep hoping it will stay even keel," Gladys says.

A key role for the diocese

Jerry praises the Warrens for elevating the issue within the faith community.

"Rick Warren and Kay have done a great service to all the Christian churches to open their doors to allow us to come together and join as simply people who care," he says. 

The Warrens say the Orange County Diocese has played a key role in their effort. Bishop Kevin Vann reached out to the couple after their son committed suicide in 2013, and the diocese co-sponsored the first mental health conferenceat the Warren’s Saddleback Church last year. (NAMI Orange County was also a co-sponsor.)

In the lead-up to the conference, Bishop Kevin Vann created a mental health advisory board. He also assigned a staff member to oversee mental health outreach throughout the diocese, so that "our friends in all our parishes can have a sense that there is hope if they struggle with this," Vann says.

He notes that at many churches, staff "really don't know how to respond" when someone shows up with mental health issues. "So this is to try to help equip the front line pastoral workers" so they can provide the help people need, says Vann.

Besides St. Irenaeus, three other Catholic churches in Orange County offer support groups and  several more are opening dialogues about mental health with their congregations in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, says Michael Donaldson, Vann's director of pastoral care for families. Donaldson oversees the diocese's mental health outreach.

"When pastors call and say, 'I have someone who needs a support group,' I can say, well, there’s one in your area at this parish or this parish," Donaldson says. "So [we're] being a little more strategic about location of ministry."

Other denominations get involved

Other denominations are getting involved too.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has trained facilitators to lead support groups at a handful of evangelical and Baptist churches in Orange County.

"We have to talk about it openly, honestly, candidly and in a community that’s accepting and compassionate," says Kevin White, executive director of NAMI Orange County. "The church is one of the most important places that we can do that."

Back at the meeting at St. Irenaeus, Gladys credits the Pynes and the support group for giving her strength.

"Deacon has kinda seen me through a few years of heartache," Gladys says through tears. "Oh dear, I thought I could do this."

"It’s okay," Jerry Pyne says. "Don’t worry about it, Gladys."

The Pynes share their story in the meetings too, and these days it’s a hopeful one.

They say their daughter Jana is doing very well. She’s raising two daughters, working two jobs and volunteering as a peer-to-peer facilitator with the Alliance on Mental Illness.

Meanwhile, Rick and Kay Warren’s larger initiative is gaining momentum. At their second big conference last month, pastors from around the country picked up do-it-yourself kits that show how to set up a mental health ministry.