Monthly Archives: November 2015

An Unacceptable Truth

As personal stories emerge out of the shadows about ministers who struggle with various levels of mental wellbeing, an unacceptable truth for the church has emerged: it’s not acceptable for spiritual leaders to have a mental illness. I wish such harsh statements were simply fiction. However, it is becoming a familar refrain in conversations about mental health and the church. Why, we ask, is it unacceptable for ministers to have mood disorders? Surely the sentiment is that “it is not acceptable for ministers to have such mental illnesses” and not be in active recovery and treatment. If only.

Stigma around mental illness profoundly impacts the church and its clergy. In sharing my own story Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church, I have heard across the country how deeply Christians are personally impacted by mental illness. At the same time, most often, the depth and the complexity of the suffering caused by mental illness remains hidden from the church. Why hidden? There is real fear of rejection, misunderstanding and judgement in the church by Christians. So secrets are carried into worship and then out into the world untouched by the light of truth. 

Recently in a clergy group discussion it was reported that a parishioner said that ministers who have a mental illness are not capable of being good spiritual leaders. Additionally, clergy who do have mental illness were encouraged to keep it a secret, not talk about it or pretend that it did not exist. This silencing is not healthy and compounds the problem by adding layers of shame to the secrecy.

The issue is not how do clergy find health and wellbeing with a  diagnosis or a disease, it is, “we don’t want a minister with a mood disorder or brain disease.” As if having a brain disease makes one unfit for ministry. Put another way, “priests with depression don’t make good priests.” 

My question is: what is at the root of this belief that mental illness makes a minister unfit for ministry? 

Does living with heart disease make a cardiac physician unfit to practice medicine? Or does wearing glasses make an optometrist unfit for practicing optometry? Does having dyslexia make a teacher unfit to teach? Does having diabetes make a nutritionist unfit to teach nutrition? Does having a broken leg make a yoga teacher unfit to teach yoga? 

The unacceptable truth is this: clergy are humans. We are flawed. We are sinful, broken and wonderfully made just like you. There is a dangerous myth that clergy are set apart to be spiritual leaders because we are immune from despair, anxiety and hopelessness. The unacceptable truth is that clergy get depressed, anxious, and hopeless, too. It has nothing to do with faith. It has everything to do with being human. Clergy also die by suicide. 

It is time to reject this (un)truth. We do not want to believe that it is possible for a teacher and preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a respected and beloved spiritual leader, to experince so much inner torment, so much mental chaos and be so far from peace of mind. The truth is that faith cannot save us from these things if they are manifestations of a biochemical brain disease or mental disorder/illness. 

No amount of faith, not the faith of Abraham, Moses, Hannah or Mary, will protect us from experiencing  depression, anxiety or thoughts of self-harm. However, faith shared within a community can help us navigate life with mental health challenges. Faith can become the means in which we are saved from shame, secrecy, silence and stigma.

Ministers who are in recovery and treatment for mental illness actually can role model for congregations that spiritual health includes taking care of our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. A minister who is in therapy and taking medications to treat a mental illness will know what it means to struggle only to emerge out of the shadows and into the light. 

We need more spiritual leaders like that…who know how to navigate the dark and who know where to find the light. 

Grief and Mental Illness

It was revealing. The simple grief and loss inventory was only lines on a page with a few typed words. A group of us met at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis to talk about what it means to live well and to live on, even after we are gone. We dug right into the heart of the matter that morning: what you miss the most in life tells us what you’ve loved the most in this life. 

Looking at our losses and how they impact us today can reveal deeper meaning that we may have missed in life’s flurry.  As I reviewed my own loss inventory, I noted that though I was decades younger than my peers in my small group, my losses overflowed onto the margins of the page. There was not enough room to write them all down. Losses early in life added up. 

Loss includes not only death of loved ones, but also loss of place, relationship, identity, community, and faith. I began to wonder how much of the loss I experienced directly related to the untreated mental illness in my father’s life.

Like many families disrupted by divorce, loss of a unified family impacts each member. While we were young children my parents separated and eventually divorced, so that particular loss of a intact family is known to me. But what I observed from the data in my grief and loss inventory is something that we talk less openly about: the loss and grief related to severe mental illness. 

Grief gets complicated quickly when mental illness is in the mix. My father hadn’t yet died, but in many ways he was gone. Looking back, I now realize how much grief I carried over losing my father to untreated mental illness while he was still alive. As a girl, my heart ached for my father to provide consistent care, support and affirmation. His untreated severe bipolar disorder disabled him, so that during my growing up years he was often self-focused, irrational, and unstable. As the daughter of a parent with untreated mental illness, I came to think about insanity as the inability to sustain human relationships. In this very real way, my dad was insane. And I grieved the loss of his mind.

What has helped me in my grief caused by mental illness’s death-grip on my father’s life is this: the emptiness I carried inside found a healing balm, soothed by the love and friendship that is at the heart of Christian community.  Being part of a faith community has opened up my heart, bringing healing and wholeness. I believe, at our best, faith communities provide this redeeming love and comfort to millions of others. It’s what faith calls us to do: care for others, comfort the afflicted, heal the sick, and feed the hungry.

Naming the experience of loss and grief as shaped by experiences of mental illness is healing. By calling out the places of woundedness, we liberate their power to define us. Hope can be found in the margins, the places on the edge where we can name what longs to be free.