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The Mental Wellness Loft: A modern way to show compassion to the mentally ill

Video still from Indie88
The Mental Wellness Loft created by comedian Shelley Marshall in Toronto

Shelley Marshall has opened her airy loft to total strangers suffering with mental illness.

Having struggled with mental illness for much of my life, I’m always grateful see others make a space in the world for those of us who suffer from these invisible illnesses—especially when that space isn’t designed to “fix the problem,” but to recognize and support the human dignity of those suffering.

In Toronto, comedian Shelley Marshall has done just that, a few times a week welcoming into her own home anyone struggling with mental illness:

“Called the Mental Wellness Loft, Shelley’s home is a beautiful open space equipped with couches, tables, and open floor space for things like yoga or dancing. If you’re not immediately welcomed by the bright colors that light up her loft, you’ll be drawn in by the table of baked goods that’s perched right next to the front door. It’s turned into a kind of tradition for some of Shelley’s regular company to bake cookies and other desserts for her drop-in hours.”

I’m particularly struck by the fact that she has created this space inside her own home. Even today, with so many significant advances in de-stigmatizing mental illness, there is still a shame associated with it. I still wince when I link “mental illness” with “my” or “me” in a sentence—no one likes to be seen as unstable, and “mental illness” still carries that slight tinge of instability with it. Some people still think of the mentally ill as unpredictable, hysterical, maybe even dangerous. So when Shelley Marshall invites complete strangers suffering from mental illness into her own home, it’s much more than an act of mercy and compassion to those strangers who can get there—it’s a proclamation of compassion to strangers across the world, that those who struggle with mental illness are welcomed, trusted, and loved.

In America especially, we have long been reticent to talk openly about mental illness. Our peculiar blend of individualism and Christianity has created a cultural ethos that frowns upon weakness, particularly spiritual or emotional weakness. And although the scientific community has done much to educate the public on the physical causes and effects of mental illness, society at large has been slow to recognize these as true illnesses.

The Catholic Church, and Catholic Charities in particular, has been at the forefront of the growing movement to provide support and treatment for those who suffer from mental illness, particularly in the most vulnerable populations. In Oregon and Minnesota, Catholic Charities recently partnered with hospitals and health care providers to expand housing and health care for the homeless, staffed by dedicated mental health professionals, while the Texas branch of Catholic Charities responded to the unique needs of its population by offering low-cost, bilingual counseling services in Bryan.

But the greatest push for public awareness of and support for mental health needs has come from parents of those who suffer. Rick and Kay Warren are the most well-known parents to create a mental health initiative in their church, but they certainly weren’t the first. Jerry and Jo Ann Pyne created the first mental health support group in the Orange County diocese after their daughter was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder following a 30-year “emotional roller coaster.”

Their daughter Jana was rebellious, abused alcohol and drugs and went long stretches without being able to hold a job. They didn’t know what was going on, and they felt like bad parents.

Can you imagine? Thirty years of untreated bipolar disorder. Thirty years of illness, with no one recognizing it as illness. Thirty years of symptoms and self-medication mistaken for rebellion and bad choices. Thirty. Years.

People are literally dying every single day from mental illness, and many more are suffering in silence, afraid to ask for help for an illness that can’t be seen. As a society, we must stop ignoring them. As Catholics, we must begin to love them, and welcome them into our own homes and lives. This is why Shelley’s Mental Wellness Loft is a gift—not just to those she welcomes into her home, but to everyone who sees her doing it and understands the loving example she offers.

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