Amish community builds home for members with mental illness

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2005

MOUNT GRETNA, Pa. — On the grounds of a private psychiatric center, Amish carpenters are at work on a modest, two-story house with light gray siding — a place that will serve members of their faith who are afflicted with mental illness.

The home, Green Pastures, will allow people from the Old Order Amish and conservative Mennonite communities east of Harrisburg to live among their own community and maintain a lifestyle that eschews modern conveniences — no television or radio — while receiving outpatient clinical treatment.

Known for their plain style of dress and use of horse-drawn buggies, the Amish tend to avoid seeking psychiatric help in secular settings, fearing their religious traditions will be viewed as part of the problem.

When it opens in July, the Amish-run Green Pastures will be one of at least two residential facilities in the nation that place the Amish in familiar settings, said the organization that will provide the treatment, Philhaven Behavioral Healthcare Services.

Counselors will assure patients that the treatment will not include requiring them to abandon their faith, said Charles G. Bauman, a Mennonite who is Philhaven's liaison with the Amish community.

''This will build a bridge between the professional (mental-health) services and their culture,'' Bauman said. ''People who are mentally ill are vulnerable to being easily influenced by other people.''

A broad range of psychiatric care is available to the Amish communities throughout North America, from professional services to more informal, homespun programs run by conservative sects, said Donald B. Kraybill, a sociologist of Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College.

In the latter case, ''they do have counselors who may be good listeners and provide good emotional support, but they do not have advanced medical or psychiatric training,'' Kraybill said. ''There may be more reliance on homeopathic treatments rather than medical drugs.''

Both the Amish and Mennonite religions are faiths rooted in a 16th-century movement known as Anabaptism.

While the Amish shun most technology, many Mennonites embrace modern conveniences such as cars and telephones, although their members also include ''horse and buggy'' Mennonites whose lifestyles are more similar to the Amish.

The first facility of its kind in Pennsylvania, Green Pastures is a collaboration between Philhaven and leaders of the Amish community, who first approached the organization with the idea in June 2003, Bauman said.

Green Pastures can accommodate up to 15 residents and will also provide rooms where family members from distant towns can stay. A day program housed in a separate cottage will provide counseling and other services for residents, using a counselor fluent in Pennsylvania German.

Philhaven is affiliated with the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church but serves the general population.

The house is modeled after one in Goshen, Ind., known as Rest Haven. Rest Haven opened in January 2002 as a cheaper alternative to services provided by Oaklawn, the community's Mennonite mental-health center, said Sam Bontrager, Rest Haven's patient advocate.

Bontrager said the cost of Rest Haven's services amounts to about one-third of the standard treatment cost at Oaklawn, but declined to be more specific.

''We like to make it as inexpensive for them as possible, because they don't have insurance,'' Bontrager said.

Some Amish fear that in a standard psychiatric setting, a counselor may propose leaving the church as a remedy, Bontrager added.

''We just don't do that here, because we don't think it's the best way to help the Amish community,'' he said.

In Pennsylvania, ministers in more modern Mennonite congregations say Green Pastures should encourage their more conservative brethren to seek professional help.

''It's a helpful way to provide mental-health care for these people that would like to do it in their own cultural way of living,'' said Ken Martin, a pastor of the Weaverland Mennonite Church in East Earl.


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