Monthly Archives: September 2015

Open Letter to Pope Francis: The Invisibles 

Dear Pope Francis,

Welcome to the home of jazz, Peeps Easter candies, Facebook, and the Grand Canyon. We hope your visit to our country, the encounters with our people (rich and poor) and the conversations with our leaders inspire your commitment to world peace. We are honored and forever changed because of your presence with us. Thank you for taking time to be among our people, to walk the halls with our President and to eat lunch with our homeless.

As you speak to the highest elected officials in our land, I ask that you keep in mind the invisibles. The invisibles are the ones that you don’t see. The people who are too small, too weak, too young, too old, too tired, too locked up, too locked out, and too marginalized to show up at your parade or at your mass. 

The invisibles are also the ones too afraid. Too afraid because of the trauma of clergy sex abuse. Too afraid because of the disgrace of homophobia. Too afraid because of the disfigurement of misogyny, centuries of treating women as second class global citizens. 

Or maybe they are not too afraid. Maybe it’s something worse. Maybe it’s a numbing disconnection in the messaging. On the one hand there is the goodness of all of life that the Church claims to uphold, and on the other hand there is the reality of the judgement and silence it inflicts upon millions of victims of abuse, women, and members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, queer and questioning communities. 

As a chaplain at a domestic abuse agency, I have sat with women who speak of the teachings of the church that make them feel unworthy of fullness of life. As a minister serving a center for the homeless, I’ve led Bible studies with men who were once altar boys and whose trust and innocence were violated by priests. As a local church pastor, I’ve welcomed into membership gay Catholics  seeking a church with a more inclusive and loving embrace. A year later, I married them. 

Pope Francis, you are a breath of fresh air. But the world needs more from the Catholic Church. We need radical change. 

  • We need you to offer a formal apology to all victims of clergy sexual abuse. 
  • We need the full inclusion and support of women at all levels of church leadership, including ordination.
  • We need you to apologize for the harm inflicted by the church’s homophobia and a commitment to honor all people as good, regardless of their gender identity/expression and/or sexual orientation.

I know it’s a lot to ask. But I’m not asking just for me. I’m asking because I believe you know in your heart that these things matter, too, because reconciliation and inclusion mattered to your teacher Jesus. 

We hope you have many more years serving as the Bishop of Rome. I pray you’ll have time to get to these three things. Leadership that is radically transformative is extremely risky. I will be praying for you…that God grant you courage, wisdom and a heart of mercy that sees the invisibles as children of God.

God bless you and thank you for being Pope.

In faith,

Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith Lund

Update: three days after I published this letter, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd published this editorial.

Shame: The Bully on the Mind’s Playground

Over an omelette breakfast a friend and I agreed that shame is a barrier to wellness. Why shame? Because shame cuts away at our sense of dignity, and wounds our identity. 

The shame commonly experienced around mental illness is real and I’m not sure how we totally get rid of it. But I’d like to try. It’s an epidemic. I think being more open about living with mental illness can help decrease shame and stigma. Yet, so many people are not talking about it to their partners, family members, and friends. In my experience shame is mostly to blame.

There is still incredibly powerful sense of shame and stigma related to mental illness that is nonexistent in other diseases, like diabetes. This shame is invisible and one of the first things we can do to eradicate it is to name it. 

Shame is a bully on the playground of the mind. 

We need to call it out when we see it and hold it accountable for its actions.

How does shame become visible? You’ve seen it. It’s that awkward moment when you’re being introduced to someone new and they ask, “so what do you do?” In truth, chronic and severe mental illness has kept you from employment and so you haven’t brought home a paycheck since Obama was re-elected.

It’s shame that keeps us from answering honestly. “I’m in between jobs.” It’s a small thing, but it’s also a terrible feeling to not be able to be authentic because of shame. Too much of our identity is wrapped up in what we do instead of who we are in the world. This value system is especially hard on people who live with disabilities that prevent them from being included in the workforce. 

Shame is the bully on the playground of the mind of professional religious leaders. As the spiritual teacher and guide for a community of faith, religious leaders have little room left in their day for dealing with personal wellbeing. This is the great irony of being a professional religious. You are “in charge” of everyone else’s spiritual health and yet your own is often lacking because you are responding so faithfully to the needs of others. This hyper-caregiving in a spiritual community often negatively impact the minister’s mental health. And it’s a great shame for the church to admit it. So it mostly goes unaddressed and ministers and their families suffer in silence. 

According to LifeWay research, 60 percent of ministers report personal experience with mental illness. Yet shame creates a barrier for wellness because often clergy are too ashamed to get treatment. The stigma for ministers facing mental health challenges is intensified by the mystique of perfection of the ordained class.  

It was years afterwards that I realized one of the church’s most faithful leaders was taking antidepressants. We never talked about it. But she and my husband saw the same doctor and got their medications at the same pharmacy. We would often walk past her in the parking lot, ducking our heads. What if we had been able to talk openly about this shared experience with mental illness? I think it would have made me a better pastor. 

Shame keeps us from not only feeling better, but being better people. I believe it’s the work of all of us to eradicate the shame and stigma of mental illness. I dream of a day when we can say without shame, “I’m not working right now because I need some time to take care of my mental health.” 

Shame is the result of feeling that part of us is wrong or bad or not good enough. I dream of the day we will respect the dignity of all people who live with mental illness, celebrating their human goodness and not define them by their disease, disorder or disability. If we believe that we all are created in the image of God, then there is no shame in that, but goodness and life.

10 Ways to Prevent Suicide 

People I deeply love have teetered on the edge of death, driven by thoughts of self-harm, and are alive today, still. Dying by suicide remains one of the leading causes of death in our country, however, there is much we can do to prevent suicide. Based on my personal experiences with family members, in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day, here’s 10 things each of us can do that will help save lives. 

1. Spread hope. 

In ways that are sincere and meaningful, find ways to focus on the idea that suffering is temporary and that things will get better. Hope comes from the belief that despair is not permanent.  

For people of faith, spreading hope happens when we lift up our concerns to God in prayer. We spread hope when we pray. Pray for people who live with thoughts of self-harm.

2. Talk about suicide. 

If you are having thoughts of suicide, tell someone. The more you talk about it to other people, the more likely you are to find help and support. Tell family members, pastors, friends, co-workers, and mental health professionals. 

If you have a loved one who is feeling suicidal, talk about it. Talk to that person and ask directly how they are doing with their thinking around self-harm. Help them to monitor their thoughts, checking for warning signs that the person might be preparing to take action. 

3. Learn the warning signs.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, people who are at greatest risk for killing themselves exhibit the following signs:

If a person talks about: 

Killing themselves. Having no reason to live. Being a burden to others. Feeling trapped. Unbearable pain.

If a person’s behaviors change: Increased use of alcohol or drugs. Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online for materials or means. 

Acting recklessly. Withdrawing from activities. Isolating from family and friends. Sleeping too much or too little. Visiting or calling people to say goodbye. Giving away prized possessions. Aggression.

If a person’s mood changes: Depression. Loss of interest. Rage. Irritability. Humiliation. Anxiety.

4. Know where to go. 

All of us need to know the local, regional and national resources that offer prevention, education, and support services for mental health. Know who your local mental health care professionals are in your neighborhood. Where would a person in your neighborhood who needs emergency psychiatric help go? Find out. The National Alliance on Mental Illness can link you to local NAMI chapters that provide resources and services.

5. Be an advocate.

Talk to your pastors, teachers, first responders, mental health providers, and city council about how your local community is working to prevent suicide. Is there training for school teachers to look for warning signs? Are there enough mental health service providers that are accessible and affordable to provide care before a crisis erupts? 

6. Listen and then listen some more. 

Pay close attention to how people express themselves. Listen for ways that people communicate their emotional state. If you think a person might be considering self-harm, ask them. And listen to what they say. Listen to what they say and to what they don’t say.

7. Sew a safety net.

I don’t sew (just ask my grandma). But I do know how to ensure my loved ones who are at high risk for killing themselves have a safety net. We all need a safety net, people and a plan in place to protect us and keep us safe. A safety net means a clear way of being connected to others who care. It’s often informal, but it can be recorded in a contract, promising that if thoughts of self-harm persist, then others will be notified. My brother promises to call his psychiatrist, and to go to the hospital if he is feeling at risk of killing himself. 

8. Show Compassion.

People who attempt suicide, the survivors of suicide and their loved ones, and for those who have experienced the death of a loved one to suicide are in great need of compassion. There is absolutely no place for judgement or blame, especially from religious communities. Suicide is a tragedy that leaves a terrible amount of suffering in its path. 

Anger, shock, grief, disbelief, sorrow, and fear can all be part of the mixture of emotional responses to a suicide or attempt. Given the devastating  nature of suicide and the sense of helplessness associated with it, compassion must be demonstrated in order to facilitate healing. People who live with chronic thoughts of self-harm need our non-judgemental, compassionate support.

9. Add one more.

People who are high risk for suicide often will isolate themselves. This can be because of their symptoms of mental illness that effect their ability to be in social settings. However, reach out to people who you know are struggling. 

Add one more chair to the dinner table, inviting them to join you. Be persistent in your efforts to connect. One teen told me that when she was feeling suicidal, her friends didn’t want to hang out with her because she wasn’t “fun” anymore. Add one more place to include someone who needs to be reminded that they are not alone.

10. See it everywhere.

Suicide gets its power from being invisible. When we aren’t looking for it, we don’t see it. We assume it could never happen to the straight-A-student athlete, or the pastor, or the lawyer. 

The stigma and shame around mental illness in all communities is real, but especially in communities of color. We need to see suicide everywhere because no one is immune. Suicide impacts every race, religion, gender, age, income and educational level, culture, nationality, ethnicity and sexual orientation. 

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in our country. Once we acknowledge its presence in our communities, we can work together on prevention. 

In an emergency, contact:

  • —Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • —Psychiatric hospital walk-in clinic
  • —Hospital emergency room
  • —Urgent care center/clinic
  • —Call 911