Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Learning Mental Health First Aid September 22, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Several years ago I saw that message printed on the back of a young woman’s shirt at a community celebration. I approached her and asked about the meaning behind those words. She explained that she lives with depression and that her family has loved and supported her through her struggles. I thanked her. Encouraged her. Then walked away feeling grateful for the young woman’s openness and for her caring and loving family.

That we should all be so honest. And compassionate. But the stigma surrounding mental illness, although lessening, continues. The failure to understand and support continues. And that’s where education and training are vital—to recognize, to de-stigmatize, to make a difference in how we perceive and approach mental health.

An upcoming opportunity in my area, Mental Health First Aid, helps those enrolled in the course to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Attendees learn initial support skills and then how to connect individuals to appropriate care.

The class, taught by Mary Beth Trembley, a psychiatric nurse with 30-plus years of experience, will be held from 8 am – 4:30 pm on Tuesday, October 12, at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1054 Truman Avenue, Owatonna. The course meets Continuing Education Credits. Among those encouraged to attend are employers, law enforcement officers, hospital staff, first responders, faith leaders, care providers, and anyone, really.

Photographed at the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

My friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel, who completed Mental Health First Aid a year ago and is hosting the upcoming session at his church, agreed to answer several questions about the class. He has served as Redeemer’s pastor for 20 years and, during his time in the ministry, has cared for people in mental health facilities and provided support to the families of those who have committed suicide.

My questions and his answers follow:

Q: You took the Mental Health First Aid course. What prompted you to do that?

A: I first heard about Mental Health First Aid at the opening of an art show. The show was a benefit for a non-profit agency that promoted Mental Health First Aid. When I got home from the show I did some research on Mental Health First Aid and decided it would be a good thing for me to explore. The closest course I could find was in Mankato and then the pandemic hit but with a little perseverance I managed to take the course about a year ago.

Q: What was your biggest take-away from this class?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is one of the Agree/Disagree questions I was asked to respond to during the course: “It is not a good idea to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal in case you put the idea in their head.” If you are concerned about a person’s mental condition and their potential for self-harm it is better to ask a person if they are feeling suicidal than to avoid the topic.

I also learned a number of calming techniques to use for people in crisis. I learned about how to listen non-judgmentally and ways to get people to the appropriate help they need.

Q: How can we, as individuals and communities, best help family, friends and others who are dealing with mental health challenges?

A: Accessing the necessary professional mental health resources and dealing with the stigma of mental illness are two of the greatest difficulties that I see for people facing mental health challenges. So community leaders should make sure that their communities are just as prepared to respond to mental health emergencies as they are to respond to other health emergencies. Mental Health support groups such as those provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are a great way for family members of those who have mental illness to support each other.

Q: What should we avoid saying/doing? What doesn’t help?

A: “Just snap out of it”, “Pull yourself together,” or “Here we go again” should be avoided when offering support to those with mental illness. We should also avoid words like “crazy” and “retarded.” Phrases like, “I am concerned about you.” or “Is something bothering you?” are more open-ended and non-judgmental.

Q: If you were to give one reason for taking this class, what would that be?

A: I don’t look at taking the Mental Health First Aid course as a “one and done” scenario. That’s not the way it works with traditional first aid classes either. Mental Health First Aid is an important first step in getting educated about the many facets of mental health and should be followed up with ongoing efforts to become better equipped to offer support to those who struggle with mental illness. Mental health issues are so common these days that everyone, but especially those in care-giving professions, should have at least a basic understanding of this topic.

Photographed along a bike trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I hope this post encourages you to consider taking Mental Health First Aid or a similar course and/or to connect with the National Alliance on Mental Illness for information and support. Or to seek professional help if needed. You are not alone, whether you are dealing with mental health issues or you love/care for someone who is facing challenges. The Struggle Is Real.

FYI: To sign up for the October 12 Mental Health First Aid class in Owatonna or for more information, email redeemerowatonna at outlook.com or call 507-451-2720. Registration deadline is Tuesday, October 5. Cost is $90.

Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Nigerian civil war story untold until now & my emotional reaction January 31, 2017

"The Disturbances" is told in both book and film.

The Disturbances is told in both book and film.

I NEVER EXPECTED to find myself on the verge of crying while watching a documentary about a civil war in Nigeria in 1966. But I did on Sunday afternoon as I viewed The Disturbances at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Owatonna.

Produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics, the film tells the stories of missionaries and their families who, caught in the middle of a civil war, helped save the lives of Igbos, a tribe victimized by genocide. Thousands upon thousands of tribal natives died, many hacked to death by machetes.

The letter calling the Rev. Paul Griebel and his family to the mission field in Nigeria.

The letter calling the Rev. Paul Griebel and his family to the African mission field.

I’ll admit, I’m not the best with history and geography and, until recently, knew nothing of this strife in Nigeria 51 years ago. But then my pastor-friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel of Redeemer, alerted me to the documentary. He was an “MK,” as missionary kids were tagged, living in Nigeria with his Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor father, mother and five siblings at the height of the violence. He was only eight when his family arrived from Minnesota, thus recalls little.

But plenty of others do remember the civil war and spoke openly about it for the first time in The Disturbances, the film titled after the code name the missionaries gave to the conflict. Their experiences were horrible. And memorable. Even 50 years later, their words and faces reveal the trauma of witnessing such violence.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, had gotten in Africa.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, acquired in Africa.

The featured missionaries (including pastors, teachers and others from many denominations) lived in and around the city of Jos, a cultural melting pot and the epicenter of the violence. They were warned, “Tomorrow there will be trouble.” The next day the phone rang followed by a three-word declaration: “It has started.”

A beautiful carving from Africa, among those the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel brought back to the U.S. from Africa.

A beautiful carving from Africa, among those the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel brought back to the U.S. from Africa.

And so the stories emerged of Igbos hiding in fields and in rafters of the church sanctuary and in a store room. Stories of Igbos escaping with the help of missionaries. Stories of missionaries hiding a body in elephant grass. Stories of murdered Igbos picked up by trash trucks and buried in mass graves. Stories of the teen children of missionaries tending the wounded inside a police compound. Stories of missionaries lighting a runway with the headlights of their cars during an evacuation effort.

As I listened, I felt my grief rising, heightened perhaps by the unsettling current events in our own country regarding refugees. I wonder what stories they might tell, what violence many have fled/desire to flee for safety in America.

Two stories in particular imprinted upon me from The Disturbances. A victim of the attacks asked a young woman tending him whether she would be his daughter. His entire family had been slaughtered. She agreed, reciting Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd…) and The Lord’s Prayer to the dying man. The woman, 50 years later, still remembers his final words. “I’m going home, my daughter.”

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria with teacher Carl Eisman in the back row. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Kirk Griebel.

And then there’s the story shared by Carl Eisman, a Lutheran teacher at Hillcrest School (a boarding school in Jos) and friend/co-worker of the Rev. Paul Griebel. After evacuating children from a hostel, the two men remained hidden there with tribal members. As an angry mob approached ELM House, Eisman hid in the shadows with a hunting knife. And, as he recounted, Rev. Griebel sat at a nearby table reading Scripture and praying. Eventually, the mob dispersed and the men emerged to find a body, one they temporarily hid in elephant grass.

My friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel, doesn’t recall his father (or mother; both now deceased) ever talking about the violence they witnessed. He remembers only an angry mob and waiting outside a fenced police compound where the injured and dying were taken.

This close-up of Susan Griebel's Nigerian-themed art shows the dove she incorporated as

This close-up of Susan Griebel’s Nigerian-themed art shows the dove she incorporated as representing the Holy Spirit. In the film, one interviewee said the missionaries had only one resource–that of prayer.

The film explains why the missionaries didn’t speak openly about the violence, even to family and church staff back home. They felt caught without resources in the middle of a civil war. As foreigners, they thought it best to lie low. They desired, too, to protect the children, to normalize their lives. And so they remained mostly silent. Until now and the documenting of their experiences in The Disturbances.

Given the time period and their foreigner status, I understand the guarded position. Missionaries and Nigerian pastors met, though, for two days in October 1966 to discuss “the disturbances” privately. I am thankful that these long-ago missionaries and their family members have now chosen to speak publicly about their experiences. For it is through the telling of personal stories that we learn and begin to understand suffering, courage, compassion and faith in times of violence. And for those who witnessed such atrocities, talking begins the process of healing.

FYI: Upcoming screenings of The Disturbances are scheduled in Missouri and Alabama. Click here for details. The Rev. Kirk Griebel will present the film this Wednesday, February 1, at 6 p.m. at King of Kings Lutheran Church, 1701 NE 96th St. in Kansas City, Missouri.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling