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New documentary on mental illness planned


Chet Watson (left) is interviewed by Burton Buller for a documentary to be produced in 2005 on responding to mental illness. Watson is an Episcopal priest in Concord, Calif., the past president of the California chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and co-chair of Faith-Net, which works at faith issues and the mentally ill. Buller is director of Mennonite Media.

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March 2, 2005
-by Melodie Davis

Harrisonburg, Va. — While mental illnesses wreak havoc on a family and individuals who suffer from one of dozens of diagnosable and treatable mental illnesses, the church has not always lived up to its promise of offering a community of respite, support and hope. A new documentary for ABC-TV, currently being taped and produced by Mennonite Media, will examine the impact of mental illnesses on individuals and society.

Mennonites have long been known for their pioneering work in the field of mental health, dating from the experience of Mennonite (and other) Civilian Public Service workers during World War II. Many men and some women worked in mental hospitals and found gross institutional abuse and neglect.

Moved by compassion, the church became involved in the founding Mennonite-run mental health institutions offering care based on Christian principles.

“Over time, this care became more and more professionalized,” said Burton Buller, director of Mennonite Media and executive producer/producer of the documentary. “In our research we’ve learned that too many congregations are leaving support and care of the mentally ill to the professional programs, and many families feel immense stigma, shame and aloneness.”

The central focus of the documentary will be persons telling their own stories of dealing with mental illness, along with their caregivers.

“We want to challenge society to rethink the stigma that continues to follow diseases of the brain,” said Buller. Experts in the treatment of brain disorders will provide a backdrop to the stories. Clergy and lay people of faith will also provide commentary for the program.

In any given year, about 5-7 percent of adults have a serious mental illness. Approximately 35 percent of all persons will experience a diagnosed brain disorder sometime during their life, with mental illnesses causing the most disability among all illnesses (in the U.S. Canada, and Western Europe) according to the U.S. Government’s report on mental health.

Moreover, many who have a mental illness go untreated, largely because of stigma surrounding mental illness and also associated costs. “Only about one out of two people with a serious form of mental illness seeks treatment for the disorder,” the report states.

One person already interviewed for the documentary is Chet Watson, past president of the California chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), co-chair of FaithNet, the faith arm of NAMI, and an Episcopal priest. Out of his professional life and personal experience with his son’s mental illness, he noted, “Most seminaries do not teach anything about mental illness. And most clergy people are no different than the average citizen (in their awareness).”

Watson goes on, “The only thing they know about mental illness, unless they have a personal experience, is what they read in the newspapers. And we all know that the mentally ill are portrayed as monsters, rapists and bank robbers.” Research, however, reveals that most persons with a mental illness are not violent towards others, but many are at increased risk of suicide.

Compounding all this in families is the guilt some parents feel. Watson says, “My wife still feels some sense of guilt, and she blames herself for our son’s illness. But we know now that it’s not bad parenting; it’s genetic. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain.”

Buller noted that when Mennonite Media worked on a documentary in 2003-2004 on survivors of suicide, the alarming statistics related to mental illness and suicide propelled them to undertake the topic of mental illness. “Pastors and patients interviewed for ‘Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide’ indicated a huge need for a program to address the topic of mental illness from a faith perspective,” said Buller.

In the church, mental illness can be a challenging issue both for the person who is ill and the church as it relates to that individual.

“We want the mentally ill person to become human. We want the viewer to come away from the documentary saying, ‘I will never be able to look at or think about mental illness in the same way again,’” Buller summarized.

While the funding partners have not all been finalized, ABC-TV normally contributes a small amount of production funding for programs created for their “Vision and Values” series in partnership with the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission and the Communications Commission of National Council of Churches in the USA. Buller serves as chair of the electronic programming committee for the communications commission.

Staff is consulting with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Washington, D.C., and other experts in the field of mental health to complete the documentary, which is scheduled to air in October 2005 at the discretion of local ABC-TV affiliates.