Local TV show sheds light on mental illness

Local TV show sheds light on mental illness

UU minister conducts mental health ministry via public access TV.
Jane Greer


Kathryn Lum was describing what it was like as a person with mental illness to first feel the positive affects of medication. “I remember for the first time lying in bed feeling like I had just been thrown up on the shore,” she told the cameras. “I had been shipwrecked and the waves had been crashing over me and I had been struggling to keep afloat. Then I found myself on the beach and resting. Feeling peace for the first time.”

Lum, who has schizoaffective disorder, was a guest on a new public access cable TV program called “Mental Health Matters—Alameda County,” which debuted last fall. The show is trying to counter the stigma and prejudice often attached to mental illness by talking with people who actually suffer from various conditions as well as with family and loved ones who live with them.

The monthly TV show is the brainchild of the Rev. Barbara Meyers, a UU community minister associated with Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, Calif. As a community minister, Meyers’ work takes her outside the church and into the community. Her own particular ministry centers on mental health issues. “With as many as 20 percent of the populace living with a mental health problem at any one time, there is a lot of needless suffering that could be alleviated with more information and understanding,” she wrote in a press release for the show.

The series of 30-minute programs is broadcast on Comcast public access channels in Alameda County, Calif. The first show focused on the stigma frequently attached to mental illness. Succeeding programs have been devoted to suicide, schizophrenia, recovery, bipolar disorder, and African American mental health. Each show concludes with a list of resources for people interested in finding out more.

Each program features at least two guests who can bring different perspectives to an issue. “I look for guests who are not in crisis,” Meyers said. “They may have been in the past but now they can be role models. When I talk to them before the show I tell them to think of somebody who might be in a situation like you were. I want viewers to know it’s possible to get beyond this.” Meyers hosts the show and conducts the interviews.

Viewers have been appreciative. “People thank me for bringing issues out into the open and for giving them resources they wouldn’t have otherwise known about,” Meyers said. Lum agreed. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” she said. “Many people have thanked me for sharing my story.”

The experience has helped Lum to feel better understood. “Life for me used to be a living nightmare,” she said. “A lot of people think you’re crazy. Understanding what it’s really like breaks down stereotypes.”

Meyers said she hopes to continue the series through December 2008.

The show is produced on a shoestring. The local Comcast station permits Meyers and her crew of twelve volunteers to use the studio for free. The station trained the volunteers in the use of lights, cameras, and sound equipment. In exchange, the station is able to fill several hours with public service programming, an FCC requirement. A grant from the Alameda County mental health association covers additional costs. About half of the crew are members of the Mission Peak UU Congregation.

Meyers’ commitment to mental health issues is based on personal experience. After being hospitalized twice for depression, she discovered Unitarian Universalism. “The congregation was tremendously helpful to me in my recovery,” she said. “They really lived the first principle [respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.] It was incredibly healing being in that environment.”

Meyers’ ministry is all about hope. “My version of evangelism, living out my religious principles is primarily: give hope. Hope is the start of recovery—believing you can recover,” she wrote in an email. “This is the ‘good news’ or gospel that I want to spread.”

She added, “I think that there’s no better thing I could be doing with my life. This show can have an effect on people.” In addition to the television program, Meyers has developed a curriculum called The Caring Congregation Handbook and Training Manual, which educates people about mental health issues.

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