Since my last post on this topic, I’ve had many, many beautiful conversations concerning the Christian community and how it addresses the issue of mental illness. As this month of May comes to a close (also known as Mental Health Awareness Month), I decided to write a follow-up post circling around a central theme in these discussions: “What do we do now?”
I think there are a couple of different answers to this question, depending frankly on who’s asking the question. I’m going to address three: the Christian community (all faithful–lay and clergy), mental health professionals, and those struggling with mental illness.
The Christian Community:
I’ve had a lot of friends ask me how to address this topic within our community. The first response is simple: PRAY. We must, must, must pray for those in our communities who are suffering the devastating cross of mental illness. But the next step is a little more difficult: we must change the way we talk about mental illness.
This was the primary point of my previous article. We must change the rhetoric concerning mental disorders, recognizing and addressing them as we would any other medical condition. For example, if a friend told you about their recent health decline, maybe it’s frequent headaches, dizziness, lump in their breast, etc, your immediate response would be “we need to get you to a specialist!” We must have this same reaction concerning mental illness. If a friend confides in you about recent depression, not sleeping, or unsettling thoughts, our first response must be “let’s get you to a specialist!” (ie therapist, licensed counselor, professional psychologist, etc).
Now this will take some training in our communities. As lay people, in our everyday conversations with our close friends and families, we need to have certain “radars” on when discussing these sensitive issues. We need to recognize behaviors, emotions or feelings that simply don’t sound healthy. We need to insist that there are certain emotions or behaviors that are beyond the capabilities of close friends with “listening ears,” but rather need to be addressed in a professional arena. When we do this–when we address the issue of mental illness as any other medical condition–shame is removed from the rhetoric, and the person carrying this cross can move forward with courage and confidence.
On a side note, priests/clergy in particular have an important role to play in this. I was pleased to find out recently that many priests receive at least a foundational understanding of mental illness in seminary in the hopes of being able to recognize certain concerns that are outside of their guidance and counsel. While priests can (and do) help their faithful navigate the spiritual complexities of the crosses they may bare, there are certain behaviors that they are simply not trained to handle.
Mental Health Professionals
I’ve done a lot of thinking about this next group. I suppose it all stemmed from a comment posted on my last article that said–I’m loosely quoting here–that professionals must be “competent” in matters of religious faith. I thought the phrase “competent” was particularly relevant here, but I might even take it a step further. Mental health professionals–whether they claim a religious faith or not–must be competent, articulate and respectful when addressing issues of spirituality and faith. This means if an atheist therapist is attempting to treat the depression of a Christian patient, they must not attempt to change their patient’s worldview or argue over the validity of their beliefs. I’ve told many of my friends if they EVER encounter a therapist like this to RUN RUN RUN. It’s just not worth your time (or money) to argue your worldview when your efforts should focus on you GETTING BETTER.
While in a perfect world Christian patients would have access to many well-trained, holy Christian therapists, it simply is not the case. I was so extremely blessed to find a woman who was incredibly well-qualified in treating mental illness but who also happened to have the prayer life of a saint (with six kids no less). But not everyone has these resources available, so mental health professionals carry the extraordinary burden of being able to effectively treat a patient’s mental disorder without shaming them away from their faith (or seeing their faith as a barrier to their healing).
(The only exception to this, of course, is if the mental health professional has the wisdom to recognize the patient’s own understanding of their faith is misguided or harmful. Our discussion on Christian suffering in popular rhetoric from the last post is a good example of this).
Men and Women Carrying the Burden of Mental Illness
To this group, of course, goes my utmost sympathy and prayers. Your journey ahead is a difficult–VERY DIFFICULT–one.
When I was first diagnosed with OCD and depression, I realized I could take two routes: 1. Tell ABSOLUTELY NO ONE and hide away from all civilization until I could make sense of what was happening or 2. Tell EVERYONE I COULD POSSIBLY THINK OF in the hopes of receiving some reassurance that perhaps I wasn’t crazy.
Now I was a sixteen year old girl who liked to chatter, so I chose option 2. And what I found shouldn’t surprise anyone: people had NO IDEA what to do with the information. My parents did their best to research the disorder, come with me to my therapy sessions and talk to our family members (they really were amazing through the process), and my friends reassured me of their love and support, but really no one knew what to say to make it all feel better. And honestly, that’s what I was looking for: someone to say that magical phrase that would make me feel like less of a crazy person and more of a human being. But no one could, because healing wasn’t (and perhaps isn’t supposed to be) this instantaneous thing. It’s a long, hard journey that had ME as the captain.
After confiding in about half dozen friends I couldn’t believe the lie that diagnosis meant “problem solved!” No, diagnosis was only the beginning, and the road to “recovery” was very very difficult (I say recovery with hesitation, as you’re never REALLY healed from your mental illness, the burden only lessens).
And so what to do? Well first, we must PRAY. Pray that God will provide you with comfort and peace in the midst of the pain. Pray that you will accept with patience the cross you’re carrying. Pray that God will lead you to the mental health professional who will best help you heal. Just PRAY. And know that God is here with you in the midst of the suffering.
But we must also train our own brains to believe that we are not BROKEN. We must work to remove the SHAME from our disorders and proceed with treatment with the same courage and conviction that we would any other medical condition (think I’ve reiterated that point enough?!?)
And finally, we must see our cross as a way not simply to draw closer to our suffering Lord (and his sorrowful Mom for that matter), but as a means to help others heal as well. I remember so vividly the day I realized mental disorder could be OFFERED UP (the dreaded Catholic phrase) for others suffering with this same pain. When I realized that, my heart was filled with an incredible sense of purpose. I now had a MISSION in the midst of my suffering, and it made my healing all the more beautiful.