In 1845, when one of the 19th century’s great social activists showed up in North Carolina, things began to change for those suffering from mental illness. Dorothea Dix presented the General Assembly in 1848 with her observations on this state’s care and treatment of what were then called the insane, and the legislature was moved to act. Among other consequences, the recently decommissioned Dix Hospital was built.
Dorothea Dix’s life-changing moment had come in 1841 when she began teaching Sunday school at a Massachusetts women’s prison. This church lady was appalled by the treatment of the prisoners, particularly those with mental illnesses, whose living quarters had no heat. Dix went to court and secured an order to provide heat for the prisoners, along with other improvements.
As she did in other states, Dix lobbied our General Assembly, in part by noting that North Carolina offered four methods of disposing of her “insane, epileptic and idiot citizens”: “In the cells and dungeons of the County jails, in comfortless rooms and cages in the county poor-houses, in the dwellings of private families, and by sending the patients to distant hospitals.”
More than 150 years later, things have changed – but only in ways that still fail many of our most vulnerable citizens. Now we call poor-houses homeless shelters, and we have added three inappropriate means of “disposing of our insane”: hospital emergency rooms, state prisons and the streets.
Dorothea Dix isn’t turning over in her grave over the rolling bipartisan disaster that has characterized the treatment of those with serious mental illness in North Carolina; she’s spinning.
But I am happy to report, the never-married Miss Dix has spiritual descendants, among whom are Barbara and Gove Elder. Once missionaries in Thailand, eight years ago the Elders started on another mission in another mission field.
Not entirely abandoning hope that the public sector might eventually get it right for what Jesus called “the least of these, my brethren,” the Elders and others have sought to engage and mobilize the entire religious community, starting in the Triangle, to assist in the cause of appropriate care for individuals who, due to mental illness, often cannot care for themselves.
They called the initiative Faith Connections on Mental Illness. The religious communities that commit to Faith Connections see as their mission ministering to those who suffer from mental illness while supporting their families and caregivers. They also work to educate the public about mental illness while striving to eliminate the stigma associated with it and to be, as Miss Dix put it, advocates “of those who cannot plead their own causes.”
As a result, religious congregations have begun mental illness support groups, children’s mental health lecture series and a variety of discussion groups on mental illness as well as ongoing ministries to individuals and families dealing with mental illness.
Last year, Faith Connections had 12 sponsoring organizations, religious and secular, in addition to 29 distinct faith communities sponsors, including Methodist, Jewish, Baptist, Catholic, nondenominational, Episcopal, Church of God, Unitarian/Universalist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Lutheran and United Church congregations. More are joining.
The mission of Faith Connections is to work with all faith communities to welcome, include, support, educate and advocate for individuals and families who are living with mental illness. Please join us.
Gary D. Gaddy is on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Orange County and also of Club Nova, a clubhouse program for those with mental illness in Carrboro.
What: Faith Connections conference, “Embracing Troubled Minds: The Role of Faith Communities”
When: Friday, April 10,
8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Where: St. Thomas More Church in Chapel Hill
More information: 919-942-6227 or