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Church to focus on mental illness

Diane Coutu spent 10 years in a depression so deep it took special courage to get out of bed, take a shower, and pick up the phone to make a call. During a psychotic episode while on a trip, she had to turn herself in to the police to keep from driving too fast.

Despite her lifelong struggle with what she calls "madness," Coutu managed to earn an undergraduate degree at Yale University and a Rhodes scholarship, and land jobs at the Rand Corp., Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, McKinsey and Co., and, now, the Harvard Business Review.

The 53-year-old now is helping to plan a weeklong conference at Lexington's First Parish Church Unitarian Universalist this fall to try to dispel the stigma of mental illness -- and particularly depression -- and encourage community support for the people it touches.

The Lexington church is apparently one of just a few religious organizations taking on the issue -- Coutu and the church pastor said they did not know of any in this area -- even as a national organization for the mentally ill is reaching out to the faith community.

"There's mental illness everywhere," said Coutu, who lives in Arlington but attends the Lexington church. "It's in everybody's closet. It's really the last thing to be talked about."

The kickoff for the teach-in will beSept. 30 at a Sunday church service, followed by talks during the week from a variety of speakers, including two from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The alliance, based in Arlington, Va., has online support groups for people with mental disorders, as well as a link with FaithNet, a grass-roots religious network. The alliance also has a Massachusetts affiliate and local chapters. While Lexington is not represented, chapters do serve Ayer, Lowell, Methuen, and Greater Lawrence, and Stoneham, and about 21 other state communities.

Primarily geared toward developing support groups for those with mental illness and their families and associates, the alliance also provides a wealth of information indicating the breadth of the problem of mental illness.

Based on government and private reports, the group has developed this overview: An estimated one in four adult Americans has a diagnosable mental illness in a given year; 5 to 7 percent have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder; and about 5 to 9 percent of children have a serious mental disorder.

Moreover, according to the alliance, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the country for people ages 15 to 44; suicide is the 11th-leading cause of death in the country but the third-leading cause for people ages 10 to 24; and more than 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a history of mental illness.

The pastor at Lexington's First Parish can speak with some authority on the subject.

The Rev. William Clark said he was hospitalized with severe depression for three years beginning in 1975, when he was 21. At the time, Clark, who is gay, said he was trying to come to terms with his sexual orientation and had attempted suicide several times.

Since, severe depression has not recurred, although he said he has "mild bouts."

Clark said he supports the week of events, and the activity by parishioners to bring it about in what he calls a "shared" ministry.

"I minister to them, they minister to me," he said.

On Oct. 5, Clark will give the final talk, examining spirituality and depression. "The idea is making darkness visible and bringing depression forward," he said.

Clark said he hopes that, after the events, the church will continue to reach out to the mentally ill.

"I think people just need a safe place to come and talk about how they are affected or infected by these illnesses," he said. "Those living with depression or mental illness need a network of support."

The impetus for the conference came about a year ago, when Coutu delivered a sermon on her experiences with mental illness. Afterward, many of the parishioners approached her with similar stories of their own. Among them was Brenda Prusak of Lexington, another conference organizer.

"In a town like Lexington that's affluent and people are very well educated, there's a lot of pressure to look like you really have it together," Prusak said. "The truth is, we're all broken in our own ways. I would like to allow us to be a little more vulnerable, a little kinder, more compassionate."

Coutu said conference organizers have reached out to several religious institutions in Lexington to invite them to join in the drive to help others now suffering silently to cope, as she has done.

"I would never say I have overcome the darkness," Coutu said. "I would say I learned to live with it -- with a lot of therapy and very good medications. I've learned to avoid the extremes of madness.

"I literally am a person who takes it a day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time."

For information, visit the church website at fpc.lexington.ma.us. First Parish is at 7 Harrington Road on Lexington Green. On Oct. 7-13, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill has activities for Mental Illness Awareness week. Information is at nami.org. FaithNet is at faithnet.nami.org.

Connie Paige can be reached at cpaige@globe.com.

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