Coming Full Circle

For a long time, Pastor Pamula Yerby-Hammack believed that her deeply held faith was not a companion to mental healthcare but was instead a replacement for it. “Pray it away” was a common refrain in her community when it came to mental illness. 

But one morning, she awoke in pain, filled with fear. She didn’t recognize the world around her. A lover of morning light, she began to keep her blinds closed. “Things began to spiral,” she says. She stopped eating, found herself weeping frequently, and felt confused and isolated. 

A battery of tests from her primary care provider confirmed she was in good physical health. He gave her a prescription for Zoloft and sent her on her way. But as things continued to go downhill, she couldn’t return to work and seminary. “Even my home became a fearful place,” she remembers. 

Pam had been taught by her church community that depression and mental illness were “demonic.” But as her situation became increasingly desperate, she knew she needed more than prayer alone. 

A fresh perspective

Pam’s daughter called her insurance company and was directed to Sheppard Pratt’s Psychiatric Urgent Care. After an evaluation, her care team made plans to admit her into the Adult Day Hospital

Her days in the hospital were filled with therapeutic activities and educational sessions. “We had art therapy and groups to teach us about our meds, the fear we felt, and our own mental health,” she says. “We checked in regularly with nurses and social workers, and we had cognitive behavioral therapy sessions.” Pam realized that the hospital was filled with people like her. “We weren’t incapacitated; we were just struggling.

“Everyone was professional, compassionate, and empathetic, from my fellow patients to the administrative people. Everything about the experience was helpful.” 

Pam’s care team diagnosed her with anxiety and depression. With time and education, she began to change her mind about therapy and psychiatric medications. The people around her helped her feel validated and normalized the dark days she had experienced. She finally saw the light ahead. 

“I got a diagnosis. I was put on medication. I went to therapy,” Pam says. “God used prayer, and He used the pills to get me up out of that place of darkness.

“The Adult Day Hospital is where I found help and hope. It was in this place that I actually found the deliverance I needed. It wasn’t sitting on a pew in the church. It was sitting in a chair in my support group.” 

Pam realized her busy schedule as a wife, student, mother, caregiver, and minister had been a way to hide from her struggles. “I had been so tangled up throughout my life trying to be something other than me,” she reflects. “I had to learn to take some things off my plate, so I could find balance.”

When I began to talk, it opened a door to allow others to talk, to say it is okay to struggle, and to ask for help.

Spreading the word

After Pam was discharged, she felt energized to spread the word about the resources that had helped her. Though her community was resistant to hearing about professional mental healthcare, she was insistent.  

“The way we talk about mental health in church is not helpful. It encourages people to suffer in silence,” Pam says. “But when I began to talk, it opened a door to allow others to talk, to say it is okay to struggle, and to ask for help.

“Now people knew: the reverend Pam Yerby-Hammack has a mental illness. The secret was out. If I had not come here, I don’t know how long I would have suffered. So I became a Sheppard Pratt advocate.” 

Friends in the church community began to confide in Pam that they too were struggling, and she directed them to Sheppard Pratt. “My mission now is to be a mental health advocate for people of faith,” she says.

Pam started offering workshops about mental illness in local churches. She described mental illness as no different from physical illness, which her community more readily understood. She found mental health professionals in the community and got them involved. “People of faith still suffer,” she told her congregation. “But we don’t have to be stuck in these places of darkness. There is help for us.

“Sheppard Pratt is right there in your community, and the people in there are angels. They have helped not just me, but my family, and other families.” 

Through her workshops, Pam connected with a local psychiatrist who shared his own story of depression and his daughter’s death by suicide. Together, they spoke at events, on webinars, and through platforms provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They began a congregational depression awareness program, “where we talk about mental illness and wellness, share our stories, our treatments, and help the church understand how it can better support people,” Pamula says.

Pastor Miriam Cypress attended one of Pam’s workshops; “I wanted to learn more about how to help people, what to do when I see people dealing with mental illness or issues.” After watching Pam’s presentation and hearing her personal story, she says, “I learned so much, even things about myself. It brought up things in my past I needed to face. Pam creates a space in her workshop that gives people a chance to learn how to deal with things better. You don’t have to be alone.

 It has become easier to talk to people in my community about mental health,” Pastor Miriam says. She is now planning to have Pam come to her church to do a workshop series.

Pam is now a preacher, teacher, author, and advocate in her community. “Sitting here, talking to Sheppard Pratt about my advocacy work, is coming full circle,” Pam says. “I have always wanted to come back and say thank you, to let you know that your work is not in vain. You may not always know how patients’ lives work out, but for me, it has been really, really good.”

Adult Day Hospital

The Adult Day Hospital offers intensive outpatient treatment for adults experiencing mental illness who don’t require inpatient hospitalization or who have completed an inpatient treatment program. It provides group-based daily treatment that includes medication and symptom management, supportive counseling, family meetings, and discharge planning. Patients can then return to the comforts of home at night.