The President’s Brain

I don’t know if Presidents, like clergy, are required to undergo psychological testing in order to be deemed fit to serve. Mental health advocate Patrick Kennedy argues that those elected into the highest level of public service should routinely have a “check up from the neck up.” The job is stressful. The President, in order to best serve this nation, needs support from mental health professionals. 

I say the same thing about clergy. Anyone who is in a position of authority and service needs to be in good mental health. The pressures of the job and constant need to respond to crisis after crisis impacts our brains, making good mental hygiene critical. 

If the President has a mental health challenge, then I hope he gets the best care possible as soon as possible. The odds are good that he currently or at some point will suffer from a form of mental illness. One in five Americans will in any given year. Why not the President? I have compassion for anyone who is experiencing the pain of mental illness, in all its various forms.

I understand why people are calling the President crazy. It’s a way for people to explain his behaviors and the rhetoric. 

But here is the danger: it’s like jumping to blame a mass shooter’s actions on mental illness. We don’t want to look at the complex web of causation. We want a simple answer: he’s nuts.

The thing is, in the history of this nation, it is not always a matter of sanity or insanity that influences which side of history you are on. Were those fighting to preserve the institution of slavery insane? Were the confederate soldiers all mentally ill? Sure, some were. But most of them were faithfully living out an ideology, cultural norms and values passed along to them generation after generation. 

I want our President to get a mental health screening and to share the results with the American public. Then we can put to rest the question of whether or not his Presidency is impacted by mental illness.  People who live with brain diseases are capable of great things; even being President.

Stop calling the man nuts. It’s an insult to people with authentic mental illness. We might be a little difficult sometimes, but we don’t go around violating people’s human rights. That is something else entirely, and you can’t take little pills to treat it.

Beauty Shop Secrects 

“So what do you do?” Wearing a chocolate brown smock with my wet hair up in clips I smile and say, “I do lots of things. It is complicated.” My new hairstylist nodded. Within thirty seconds our conversation landed on the topic of mental health. 

“I have a story that no one knows. Not anyone outside my family. We don’t tell anyone,” she said. And then with her voice just above a whisper, while spinning me around to get the right angle, she shared her secret. As I listened to the details of her story I heard in her voice and saw in her eyes and felt in my spirit how deeply this secret haunts her. 

“It is very sad,” I said about the suffering she shared. We agreed that not many people seemed to understand the real pain caused by severe and chronic mental illness. 

“Thank you,” I said. “For sharing your story with me. You inspire me and remind me how important it is to tell our stories.” 

I confess that at first I feared entering into this intense conversation with my stylist (a stranger I had  just met) with sharp objects near my scalp. But rather than lose her focus as she talked, she seemed to be even more present as she revealed a hidden part of herself to me. 

I don’t know if I will see her again. But I do know that her story will stay with me. And my faith in the redemptive power of story grows. The pain may still reside within the heart broken by mental illness, but it no longer aches alone. In the shared story, isolation is overcome and in the broken places, hope can begin to breathe again. 

Mental Illness She Spoke

Unknown to me are the people in the audience who show up to a talk I’m giving about mental illness. I do not know 99 percent of the people for whom I share my story. I look out into the tent or the church or the room or the web camera and I have never seen most of these people before. Yet what I do know is that chances are good that their lives have been impacted by mental illness: a friend, a lover, a family member, and/or themselves.

What I’ve learned in doing this work is that in the space that we create together through the sharing of our stories, grace enters in like a steady breeze. Then one-by-one, people lean into the flow of the conversation and open themselves up to being known. We are no longer strangers, carrying anonymous hurts and struggles. We are known in the naming of our shared shadows. We are named not by the illness itself, but by identifying as people who survive each day in the midst of such deep and chronic invisible pain. 

At the Wild Goose Festival on July 8, I spoke about mental illness and faith. I gave a testimony to the healing hope that can be found in the experience of telling the true stories of our lives. I shared how at my father’s funeral, speaking as his youngest child, I muttered words of God’s love for a man that was often hard to love. Severe and chronic, untreated mental illness, like a greedy thief, stole from us decades of goodwill and affection for our father. 

Then I shared how in the aftermath of witnessing my cousin’s execution, the trauma I suffered was fuel for advocacy efforts. Part of my cousin’s story included a long history of mental illness, including the psychosis during the crime that landed him in death row. Three years after the state of Missouri killed him by lethal injection, I served as a minister for outreach in Minneapolis. I soon found myself giving a testimony at a Minnesota Senate hearing when they were trying to reinstate the death penalty. It failed. 

Lastly, I shared how my brother asked me to be a witness for him at a critical point in his life. He was going before a judge with regard to his mental health. I witnessed the procedure but couldn’t bring myself to speak the words that my brother longed to hear. I chose to keep silent, regretting that I did not believe he was mentally well enough to be released from the hospital. I hoped that my presence alone was enough of a witness. I hoped my brother knew that I loved him. That he is known to me for the whole of life’s story. That he is not defined by his illness. 

Sometimes our greatest witness is not in the words we say, but in the way we show up. Showing up with no expectations of what we will get out of it. Showing up is an act of sacrifice, an offering of our very selves, our flesh and blood. At the funeral, at the courthouse, at the hospital. Simply being fully present to listen, see, and be with others in the midst of suffering is an act of grace. 

As long as our minds continue to be vulnerable to mental illness, we will need compassionate witnesses. Ones who see the suffering and help name it out loud. Ones who journey with and alongside. Ones who can stand up in court and in the hospitals as advocates. In our broken lives there is real power to bring about positive social change. It begins with sharing our true stories.