Do Not Be Afraid

Do not be afraid of people who experience mental health challenges. No matter what the headlines regarding the most recent mass shooting, do not be afraid of people with mental health challenges. Do not be afraid.

Fear is a strategy. We are living through one of the most fear-based administrations in US history. Fear is a weapon of mass distraction and destruction. Fear diverts the public’s attention away from some of the key underlying issues of these horrific mass shootings: America’s obsession with extreme weapons and a White culture that worships violence.

Growing up in the Midwest I could walk into any arcade and find video games ready for me to shoot people on the imaginary streets for a quarter. I was raised on Hollywood movies glorifying gun violence and bloodshed. I spent holidays at family gatherings with guns as entertainment.

I’ve also spent my life navigating what it means to love family members with severe mental illness. The shame and stigma is so real for people with mental illness and their families that it takes a lot of effort to get help. I grew up knowing what it’s like to wonder if a person’s mental illness would cause me harm. It’s a terrible fear to carry.

What we need to remember is that while certain symptoms of mental illness may cause some people to be more vulnerable to expressions of harm, statistically, the majority of the time the harm is to the self, not to others. Therefore, to blame mental illness alone for mass shootings, as the President and others have done, is to deploy the weapon of mass distraction: fear.

Blaming mental illness for the death of innocent children and adults also creates additional harmful stigma and shame for people already burdened by society’s mangled beliefs that mental illness is somehow the person’s fault and results from lack of faith or willpower. Or worse, is a punishment or curse from God.

From a faith perspective, what is at the heart of the matter is this prison of fear that is slowing killing us all. The God revealed in the Bible and in the life of Jesus expresses a tremendous hope that we would not be afraid in this life.

When we are imprisoned by fear we lose our ability to imagine a different reality. We become captive to the fear mongers and we lose our power to create. When we are afraid we do not grow and change.

The most powerful action we can take is to make a decision to not be afraid. We will not be afraid of mental illness. We will not be afraid of changing gun laws. We will not be afraid of challenging a White culture that worships violence. We will not be afraid to dismantle our obsession with extreme weapons. We will not be afraid anymore.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you: God will never leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Shining a Light on Mental Illness in Religious Leadership

There are some things that you know you have to do and you are honored to do it. This was one of them. Last summer I accepted an invitation to join a focused conversation about mental health and preparing people for religious leadership. The gathering took place last month and the group included national staff leaders from several denominations and I was their guest.

Entering the hotel executive conference room, I was nervous and excited. For me this really was a “capstone” experience where I got to reflect on the hundreds of conversations that have emerged in churches since the publication of my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church (Chalice Press, 2014). I have just spent the past three years touring the country speaking with congregations about my book and mental health ministries.

What I heard and saw confirmed this: mental illness in the church is often seen and experienced as a shameful secret. This secrecy is a problem for religious leaders who do not feel safe disclosing or addressing their mental health challenges. In the shadows of secrets, the shame and stigma grows.

We spent the whole day together shining a light on mental illness: sharing, asking questions, and listening to each other. We realized that the church needs new ways to think about mental health and religious leadership.

We wondered what it would look like to celebrate religious leaders who represent a diverse “color pallet” of mental health across the spectrum.

We wondered what it would be like if we assumed that a majority of people seeking authorization for religious leadership bring with them personal life experiences of mental health challenges.

We wondered what if we viewed lived experiences of mental health challenges as a source of character development, resourcefulness, perseverance, grit and resiliency.

We wondered if God is calling people with neuro-diversity to help us imagine and create new ways of being church.

We wondered if we can better provide those seeking authorization for religious leadership with resources and support services for mental health and recovery.

We wondered if as a church we could participate in preventative mental healthcare by providing religious leaders with a “check up from the neck-up” otherwise known as depression screenings.

We wondered if national Conferences, Synods, and Assemblies of our religious bodies could offer free on-site depression screenings as an expression of Christian love.

We wondered about when to say no to a person seeking authorization for religious leadership out of concern that they might harm the church.

We wondered about when to say no to a person seeking authorization for religious leadership out of concern that the church might harm them.

We wondered about what it means to be mentally healthy and to flourish in our lives and in religious leadership.

We wondered what is preventing our flourishing and the church’s flourishing.

We wondered what is the purpose of providing psychological testing of people seeking authorized religious leadership.

We wondered about many things and in so doing we broke the silence that has kept us trapped in old and outdated systems and patterns.

It was a rich time of sharing that began with my giving testimony to the ways God has shown up in my life as I have faced the reality of mental illness in my family. In breaking the silence about mental illness, family and church, we made space to begin to wonder what if. What if we break the silence?

What kind of religious leaders do we want? Do we need?

If it is from the places along the spectrum of mental health that the most creative and resilient religious leadership emerges, then out of the silence, new religious leaders are being called. New systems and methods of preparing religious leaders will be needed as well.

18 Tips for Mental Health in 2018

Here’s a quick list of 18 tips to improve mental health for 2018.

1. Make time for people that bring you joy.

2. Connect regularly with a small group of people who you trust and with whom you can be yourself.

3. Let people know when you are struggling. Let 2018 be the year of vulnerability and truth-telling.

4. Prioritize regular sleep cycles to maximize the restorative power of sleep.

5. Get a check up from the neck up. Ask your doctor for a depression screening.

6. Spend more time in nature and make it a regular part of your week.

7. Get certified in mental health first aid.

8. Engage in face-to-face conversations (or on the phone or FaceTime) with a friend at least once a day.

9. Develop a spiritual practice that helps reduce stress.

10. Move your body in ways that invigorates you and restores a sense of inner balance.

11. Moderate caffeine, sugar and alcohol consumption.

12. Educate yourself and talk to people about mental health as a way to reduce stigma and shame.

13. Commit to seeing a therapist or counselor long-term to strengthen your insight and self awareness.

14. Take your meds.

15. As much as possible, say “no” to the things/people/activities that consistently cause stress.

16. Say “yes” to opportunities where you feel relaxed, playful, rested and will be loved, encouraged and supported.

17. Promise to tell someone who cares about you if you ever feel like harming yourself.

18. Always hold onto hope, even if you have to let go of something.