During the pandemic, Carl Blumenthal was one of the team members at New York City’s mental health hotline. “I had many encounters of a spiritual kind,” he recalls. “It’s amazing how deeply you can connect with people over the phone, or even through chats and texting. When people are vulnerable, and reaching out for health, you’re their lifeline.”
“Essentially,” he says of this work, “you’re recognizing that of God in everyone.” As a Friend and a person with bipolar disorder, Carl is drawn to the ways Quakerism can speak to people’s mental condition, and has as far back as the days of George Fox.
To determine if you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, visit Mental Health America at mhascreening.org for a free, anonymous, and confidential test. You can also call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline—dialing 988 works nationwide to access compassionate, accessible care and support for mental health-related distress.
Carl’s also written about Quakers and mental health for Friends Journal.
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Lately, in the last few years, I’ve had more what I would call “spiritual experiences”, that are hard sometimes to separate them from psychological ones. And, as I mentioned before, the fact that I have a mental illness, bipolar disorder. So you can be very high or very low and especially on the times when I’m very high, that’s when I feel more in touch with the universe.
Okay, so my name is Carl Blumenthal, and my personal pronouns are he/him/his. I live in West Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, and I attend Brooklyn Monthly Meeting. It was around the beginning of 2000 or so when I decided, I had been an urban planner (urban health planner) for like 25 years, and decided it was time for me to give back to the community that I had acknowledged as being part of, which is people living with mental health conditions.
And I became what’s called a peer counselor using my experience of of mental illness and adding to that training from other people who have gone through it themselves. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years or so. During the pandemic when I was working for NYC Well, it’s the city’s mental health hotline crisis line, I had many encounters of of a spiritual kind and it’s amazing how deeply you can connect with people over the phone or even through chat and texting when you know people are vulnerable and they’re reaching out for help and you’re their lifeline. I mean, I help people who are in the process of trying to kill themselves, you know, get, get help. You know, essentially, you’re recognizing that of God and everyone and encouraging the healing process, the natural healing process that everybody can tap into if they’re open enough to it. And I think that spiritual experiences is often an important part of the healing process for for people.
The reason I’m interested in the connection between Quakers and mental health is that George Fox himself I think was going through — you might call it — an existential crisis, you might call it a severe depression, when he found himself on Pendle Hill and discovered, or rediscovered, Christ and realized that Jesus spoke to his condition. As a result, he went on to heal a lot of people, I think both psychologically as well as spiritually.
In the late 1700s, the York Retreat was founded in York, England. At the time, people with mental illness were being chained in dungeons, and that was, you know, they were treated like criminals or poor people, I mean, all lumped together in that same inhumane way. And this Philadelphia Minister, Thomas Scattergood, went over there. He suffered from a depression himself. And he learned from the principles of the York Retreat to bring them back to Philadelphia. And he helped found Friends Hospital. It was called Friends Asylum at the time. This is about 1813. So that was the first private psychiatric hospital in the U.S..
So, when I wrote my first article about this was during the pandemic about Quakers and Quaker therapies, how they were reacting to the mental health challenges of the pandemic, I cited this history.
My ability to write has at times saved my life. Being able to be in touch with my unconscious, both spiritually and psychologically. And then at other times when I’ve had writer’s block, it’s resulted in depression and even suicide attempts. So it’s a kind of a double edged sword. I think there’s probably a history of creative people who’ve also had mental health conditions, particularly those who have had bipolar disorder. And so I feel like I’m in that tradition. And I guess you can say I’m a descendant of George Fox in that way. I’m sure on Pendle Hill he was pretty high!
- What is the history of Quakers in Mental Health?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.