Seven years ago, Lydia was introduced to The Well Community by the man who would become her husband. She met Bill on the bus, and he shared with her about Jesus and invited her to join him at The Well. Two years later, he presented her with a ring, and the couple was married there, Lydia in a royal blue dress and Bill in a navy suit.
To Lydia, The Well is far more than the place where she got to know her husband. It’s a place of support in a world that often views those dealing with mental illness through the lens of stigma, treating them with prejudice or even cruelty.
Alice Zaccarello, Executive Director of The Well Community, explains that while members of The Well might not use the term “stigma,” she hears them talk about how they are treated in the community. “At best, people look through them; they do not talk to our members or smile at them on the street. At worst, members are treated badly just because of the way they might look or the way they act.”
Regardless of what it’s called, stigma makes the constant hurdles of managing a mental health condition a greater struggle. “You feel weak from the mind, you feel tired from the mind, and there’s no relief until you get the right medication to be more stable,” says Lydia. When the weight of stigma is piled on top of these challenges, it can create an even greater burden for those living with mental health challenges.
When Lydia was hospitalized several years ago to receive treatment for schizophrenia, members of The Well Community provided ongoing encouragement. “There wasn’t a day that somebody from The Well did not call to check up on me.” She recalls how Alice would visit her, and is grateful for the many prayers, mostly from Well members, that were offered for her during that time. “It’s by the grace of God that I had the doctor that I had,” she says. “When you go to those places, you just don’t know what kind of doctor you’re going to get.”
At The Well, many like Lydia find respite from the stigma they face in the community, and even in their own families. Lydia shares that while one of her sisters has shown her kindness, another treated her differently because of her mental illness. “She looked at [me as a] a freak, a weirdo,” Lydia says.
This sister passed away shortly before Thanksgiving. While she’s been surprised by the emotions she’s felt since her sister’s passing, Lydia gives credit to God for enabling her to rely on Him rather than hold on to resentment. “I feel mature in my spirit that I could call on God now.”
What can others do to help reduce stigma? Lydia says it is important for her to feel a part of community, to be included in the family. “Have me come over, even if it’s just for a Coke.” She recalls her desire to be invited to her sister’s home and enjoy a meal with her. “I needed to be with my family. I needed that from her. … [But] there was always an excuse.”
In contrast to the sister who viewed her through the lens of stigma, Lydia’s older sister has reached out to her, checking in on her, inviting her over and making sure she feels part of the family. “She knows my condition,” says Lydia. “She’ll ask me, ‘Are you feeling OK? Do you want something to eat? Do you want to go somewhere?’ She always keeps me participating in whatever’s going on in her household, and I love her for that.”
For Lydia and many who deal with the daily challenges of mental health conditions, little things can make all the difference between being marginalized and feeling included. She encourages those who want to be more accepting and understanding of people living with mental illness to reach out with a kind word or a snack. “You don’t have to give them money. You don’t have to take them into your home. But if you can spare a dollar or two, buy them a Coke, a package of peanuts or chips. Let them know that they’re being thought of.” She emphasizes that those who are struggling need people’s involvement in their lives.
For many who live with mental illnesses, receiving a friendly greeting is a rare occurrence. Alice explains, “Just the small societal niceties, which can go a long way in making someone feel accepted and respected, are not shared with our members.”
One important factor in fighting stigma is the small but powerful recognition that every person needs a spiritual anchor. “We are all not alike, explains Lydia. “But we all need to love Jesus. We need Christ.”
Lydia also emphasizes that each person can make life a little easier for those who are struggling. “We can always [ask] one another, “Are you alright? Do you feel OK? Do you want to talk?’” As a veteran of The Well Community, Lydia is often one of the people who reaches out to those who are struggling and befriends them. “It’s been great,” she says.
She’s also thankful for other Well members who have shown kindness to her. “I talk to Charles and his wife,” she says, referencing a friend sitting nearby. “We pray for each other.”
Charles chimes in with his own advice for fighting stigma. “Don’t be scared of us. We’re not ghosts.”
At The Well Community those in the Dallas area who deal with serious mental illnesses are blessed with a shelter from stigma and the support of caring staff and others who face similar struggles. Your gift will help them continue to find a place of belonging and kindness.