Recovery Every Month

Recovery Every Month
by The Rev. Dr. Kelly Murphy Mason
2014 Sep 27

Last spring, I was invited by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – perhaps better known by its bureaucratic acronym, SAMHSA – to participate in its 2015 Interfaith Partnership Summit just outside of Washington, DC. Along with scores of other religious leaders from a range of traditions, I was asked to consider ways that our particular faith communities might help promote public awareness around substance abuse and mental illness. The message that SAMHSA hoped to communicate was that mental health is integral to overall health and that three things generally hold true:
  1. “Prevention works”; 
  2. “Treatment is effective”; and 
  3. “People recover.” 
In essence, SAMHSA was asking religious professionals to do the very thing that we have been busy doing for millennia, namely holding out hope for those who are struggling and suffering.

Most of you know me as one of the Unitarian Universalist community ministers currently in affiliation with this congregation, but my weekdays are spent as Managing Director of the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute in Manhattan, where I work with other clinicians in an array of disciplines providing mental health services to our clients. What we all share is a commitment to tapping people’s spiritual lives as a source of personal strength. For decades now, solid research has shown that religious commitments help people become increasingly resilient and better able to survive serious threats to their health, including mental disorder, alcoholism, and addiction.

The consensus in the professional literature is that involvement in faith communities seems to provide a powerful protective measure against relapse and recurrence, and much more than an ounce of prevention, as well. It can even help to save people from suicide. In clinics and counseling centers all across this country, helping professionals know these findings. SAMHSA thought it might make good sense to share this felicitous knowledge with all the congregations around America, where so much healing has already happened and continues to happen.

So I stand here today, a bearer of that good news, and also a big booster of September itself, which SAMHSA has designated National Recovery Month. Through a range of public platforms, SAMHSA works to communicate its pithy tripartite litany: “Prevention Works. Treatment is Effective. People Recover.” Over the past few years, the Unitarian Universalist Association has gotten pretty vocal on this score, too. A little while ago it sponsored a religious education curriculum called “The Caring Congregation”, geared to helping those with mental disorders feel supported and welcomed in our UU communities.

More recently, the UUA published a pamphlet titled “Addiction and Your Faith Community.” Skinner House Books has just published a volume titled “Restored to Sanity: Essays on the Twelve Steps by Unitarian Universalists”, and a group called the UU Addictions Ministry has been steadily expanding its size and scope over the past few years. One significant way UU congregations have historically supported the recovery movement is by hosting AA and NA groups, and other anonymous fellowships, in our church basements and parish halls.

While that’s certainly important outreach, I want to hold out that a great deal of recovery occurs within the walls of the sanctuary, this sanctuary, in both the pulpit and pew, as people grapple with a host of afflictions – alcoholism and opioid addiction, surely, but also bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, and major depression, to name a few – Sunday after Sunday, month after month. Like Jacob wrestling with that angel in Genesis, spiritual seekers have found themselves marked by an ongoing struggle but still unwilling to surrender hope. What faith communities like Community UU can do is break the silence around these topics and in doing so, banish some of the social stigma. We need to speak openly about these subjects, and not only at SAMHSA Interfaith Summits, and not only in the month of September.

My own life has been profoundly affected by substance abuse and mental illness. As many helping professionals do, I came to the work with a history – a history, to be sure, but also a future that was somehow opened itself to possibility. I believe that people can recover precisely because I did not believe that I ever would, and I was wrong, and I did. In my clinical work, I routinely see people improve and their situations resolve. In our UU congregations, I have seen people saved and brought back to themselves, if not from the actual dead, from an emotional deadness they sincerely thought would be the end of them.

With its faith-based initiatives, SAMHSA is working to get those stories told on the same holy ground where we meet each week for worship. I feel certain that there’s no shortage of just such stories in our congregation, and I encourage those of you who have been keeping them secret to share them as a meaningful part of your spiritual journeys. Those stories, your stories, are welcome here – and you are, too, especially if you are struggling now. Faith can work wonders. Treatment is effective. People recover. We have all have great cause for hope.

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