This is the second in a series on mental health. The first in the series appeared in the May 5 issue of The Visitor.
As part of her field education while studying at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Nancy Weldon has been getting to know the members of a mental health support group which meets weekly in Sauk Centre.
“The Catholic Church has a rich tradition that encourages us to respect and reach out to people with mental health conditions,” Weldon said. “Catholic social teaching reminds us that every person has dignity because we are all made in the image of God and therefore every life is sacred.”
Weldon has listened to the individual stories of the group members and has made it part of her educational goal to help them share their stories with others.
“I noticed the compassionate attention they give each other at their weekly check-in meetings,” Weldon said. “Each person has a chance to talk about her or his week and its highs and lows while the other folks listen. When each person is done sharing, the listeners ask questions.
“You can tell by the nature of their questions that they’ve really been listening. But the meetings aren’t all serious. There’s a lot of laughter and they joke with each other freely, like old friends,” she said.
Mike Hoover was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, and raised by his mother and two older sisters. A passionate musician, Hoover attended the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton on a Trustee Scholarship.
But that’s when his life began to play a different tune.
“Freshman year of college changed everything,” Hoover said. “The stress from being away from home combined with the stress of being a Trustee Scholar — by the middle of my sophomore year I knew something was wrong, I just didn’t have any idea what it could be.”
After college, he moved to Las Vegas where he was a successful computer programmer and entrepreneur. Then, in 2005, he experienced his first manic episode. He was diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder, a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
“The first couple of years following my diagnosis were the worst of my life, mentally, physically and socially,” he said. “I have never felt so confused, alone and afraid. That’s part of the reason why I want our Sauk Centre group to do well. No one should have to go through what I did alone.”
One of the hardest parts of having a mental illness Hoover said is struggling with a sense of identity.
“I was a musician. I was a programmer. I was a businessman. Then I was bipolar,” he said. “Twelve years later and I’m finally approaching a point where I might be able to say I am something else. Maybe I’ll be able to say I’m a musician again, or maybe my recent science-fiction writing will make me comfortable saying I’m a writer. I have a lot of hope, but there’s always a ‘maybe’.”
What he wants most is for people to look at him and see a “kind, generous and intelligent man who likes to see other people smile and laugh.”
The support group has meant a lot to him and he wants others to know they have a safe place to be heard.
“Hope is such a powerful emotion,” he said. “I hope that the work we are trying to do through our group will have an impact as we expand our reach to others. I hope our group can help others in the way that it has helped me.”
Meet Richard and Monica
In 2013, Hoover moved to Melrose to be closer to his family. Just shortly after moving, he experienced his fourth hospitalization in nine years.
“I obviously needed more help with my treatment,” Hoover said. “A friend of my sister recommended [a support group] held in Albany. I met Richard [Schultzetenberg] there and learned about the Sauk Centre group.”
Schultzetenberg has been dealing with mental illness for almost 40 years. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective mental illness which is a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar.
About five years ago, Schultzetenberg and his wife, Monica, organized the group that meets on Fridays at the Palmer House in Sauk Centre.
He, like Hoover, noticed something was wrong in college while attending the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
“The rigorous education was too much for me,” he said.
While studying there, he met Henri Nouwen, an internationally known priest, author and professor who wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life, including Richard’s favorite, “The Wounded Healer.”
“Henri said to me, ‘Richard, let life heal you,’” he said.
So Richard moved home from Rome and reconnected with Monica, who he had met while studying at St. John’s University and while she was studying at the College of St. Benedict.
The couple married and moved to Connecticut, where Richard pursued his master’s degree at Yale Divinity School. After graduation, they moved back to Minnesota and Richard worked in parish ministry.
“It was one glorious year but it didn’t last,” he said. “Then I got sick, really sick, and was hospitalized. Then I was deeply depressed.”
They struggled through what they call the “long road to recovery.”
“However, at the darkest point of my life, which was about a year after my hospitalization, Monica conceived and we had our son. That was the best thing ever in our lives. From the depths of despair, there was resurrection,” he said.
Though they were many good days, Richard suffered through more depression and more hospitalizations.
“When I have bad nights, I will sit in my chair and Monica will sleep on the couch near me just to protect me,” he said. “It’s a testament to her that we are still together. A lot of marriages do not withstand mental illness. It takes a special person to stand by you through something like this.”
The Schultzetenbergs believe that their struggles with marriage, mental health and ministry is a way for them to reach out and help others.
“It has been tremendously sustaining and supportive. We are all wounded but we are so good for each other. It meets a need,” Richard said.
He hopes that others might consider attending this group or starting one of their own. He has hope that by sharing stories, other people struggling with mental health issues will know they are loved, valued and supported.
“I’m certainly ill but I have managed some successes in my life,” Richard said. “A family, a marriage, some years of work. What I want to say is that people can live, love and work to a limited extent even with a mental illness. And that’s what I would like to offer to others — to let them know that life does not end when you are struck down with a mental illness. Yes, we are wounded, but we are still healers, we are still lovers and livers of life.”
“Our neighbors living with mental health conditions are hungry for acceptance and thirsty to feel a sense of belonging in their communities,” Weldon said.
“They often feel like strangers in their own towns and churches. How can we begin this process of acceptance and belonging? We can look to people we know as role models.”
Joanne and Gerry Bjorlo attend the weekly group to listen and offer friendship and support to the group. Though they do not struggle with mental health issues themselves, they feel it is important to support those who do.
“Whenever someone arrives at the meeting, Joanne jumps up, gives the person a hug and makes sure they have a place at the table. Her welcoming presence has touched me deeply and I see how simple gestures like hers can make a big difference in people’s lives,” Weldon said.
Weldon hopes that others will take a step in welcoming those who are affected by mental illness, including their families and caregivers.
“Pope Francis calls us to give special priority to those among us who are the most vulnerable and pushed to the edges by society,” she said. “The stigma associated with mental health conditions pushes people to the edges, but as Christians we are called to preferentially give time and attention to our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Next in the series, June 16: What are some parishes doing to minister to people affected by mental illness?