By Barbara Justus
To describe the impact the Reverend Chet Watson has had on mental health ministry in this country is a daunting task.
Since his son was diagnosed with a serious mental illness 17 years ago, Fr. Chet has been both warrior and saint on behalf of those with mental illnesses and their families.
Whether he is soothing the battered hearts of those with mental illnesses or challenging policymakers or fellow clergy to open their eyes to how critical mental health issues are, Fr. Chet leaves a big wake wherever he goes.
Perhaps author, colleague and friend, the Reverend Jim Stout, has summed up the impact of Fr. Chet’s ministry most eloquently. Reverend Stout, a Presbyterian pastor who has served churches from 300–4,700 members around the nation, was diagnosed with a mental illness many years ago.
Rev. Stout says:
I’ve known Chet Watson for over 15 years. He has been a strong and sensitive mentor to me. His influence has extended to his community, county, the state of California and the nation… via his leadership and service on various boards such as NAMI CA (National Alliance on Mental Illness), NAMIFaithnet, antistigma and various other community activities, including the establishment of a 80-bed facility in a residential neighborhood. While he is unapologetically Episcopalian, he has worked extremely effectively with believers of all faiths, across denominational lines… and with nonbelievers as well.
I don’t know how this truly humble man has done so much for those affected by mental illness in his church community, state and nation… He is, above all, a man of great faith and a man who deeply cares for the people with mental disabilities and their families!
If we could clone Fr. Chet and plant him in every diocese across the country, the state of mental illness ministries in the Episcopal Church would be much healthier. However, since we must bring the mountain to Mohammed, Fr. Chet was kind enough to share his experiences and advice with EMIN readers.
So enjoy the interview and show it to your fellow parishioners if you want to start or enhance a mental health ministry in your congregation.
- EMIN: Did you ever dream that your life’s ministry would ultimately focus on advocacy for those with mental illness?
- Fr. Chet: No. However, I do remember when I was 12 years old and my younger brother was deathly ill, I made a promise to God that I would give my life to Him if He would save my brother.
- My life has been a good lesson about making (and keeping) one’s promises, particularly to God!
- I was ordained to the Diaconate in 1980. Nine years later, I entered seminary and was ordained a priest in 1991 by the recently retired Bishop William Swing. Bishop Swing has been a great supporter of EMIN and other mental illness ministries. The Rev. Richard York, my predecessor, encouraged Bishop Swing to create one of the few Commissions on Mental Illness (COMI) in the Episcopal church. This was to fulfill the General Convention Resolution in 1991 on mental illness.
- After the Rev. York died in 1994, all eyes turned on me when the question of leadership was raised at the next COMI meeting and that’s how I became chair of it.
- EMIN: What are the most important things you think a congregation can do to make their church a welcoming place for those with mental illness?
- Fr. Chet: From my answers to your questions, you will be able to tell that I consider the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) a critical resource for any mental illness ministry, secular or religious.
- So here are my candid recommendations.
- If you wait for the vicar or rector to bring the subject up, think again.
- Know that you are not alone. Save your energy and use all the resources your local NAMI chapter can provide—mental illness is their business 24/7. Have someone from the congregation attend a NAMI meeting to get a feel for the ministry you are about to embark on.
- Rate your church. You can find a checklist at the EMIN website: www.eminnews.org. (Click the tab on the left hand side of the homepage that says “Take Action.”)
- Plan events in May, and which is Mental Health Month, and during Mental Illness Awareness Week in October.
- Write an article about mental illness in your church publication. EMIN has a section on its website, www.eminnews.org. Click on “Take Action” and follow the links to “The Printed Word.”
- Add this phrase to the Prayers of the People, “We pray for those who live with mental illness, their caregivers and their families.”
- Call the local NAMI and offer space for a support group. This is known as “walking your talk.”
- Prepare yourself for stigma. You will be shocked. Be gentle in your education efforts; remember, at one time you were not very aware until someone shared with you.
- EMIN: How can one person jumpstart a mental illness ministry at their church?
- Fr. Chet: First, I would get as many people involved as you can. Put together a written plan, get the support of your clergy, and then present it to your congregation’s governing board. Again, I suggest turning to NAMI for ideas. The Family to Family class is a good start, a turnkey program you can put on at your church.
- Publicize mental health issues in bulletins, minutes for mission. NAMI has a powerful program called “In Our Own Voice,” a speaker’s bureau of persons with mental illnesses who are able to articulate their experiences eloquently.
- Learn about stigma and how to combat it. Join NAMI StigmaBusters. And, perhaps most important, be patient. People only know what someone has taught them and mental illness is a scary topic for lots of people.
- EMIN: What do you feel families need most when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness?
- Fr. Chet: Friendship. Empathy, not sympathy. Understanding, not judgment or advice. Mental illness is not a “casserole disease.” And please watch your language. You may mean well, but stigmatizing language surrounding mental illness is rampant and it is very hurtful. A touch on the arm or shoulder speaks for you.
- Those of us who have family members with mental illness have had enough advice from family and friends. True friends know it is okay not to speak.
- EMIN: What would you like to see the National Church do differently concerning mental illness?
- Fr. Chet: Many things come to mind but the foremost is to remove the page in The Book of Occasional Services, concerning exorcism. The Diocese of California submitted a resolution to General Convention 2003, Resolution C038, concerning stigma and abuse by clergy towards persons with mental illnesses, but it got referred to a committee where it will never be seen again.
- The Church has been silent much too long. A good example is the lack of funding for the EMIN, the only publication and voice in the entire church advocating for the mentally disabled. We have a long ways to go to catch up with other faith communities.