My Facebook feed, probably like yours, recently displayed a combination of people wearing odd Thanksgiving day cloth turkey hats, smiling faces sitting around tables piled with food, Christmas trees getting decorated along with outcries about international and national terrorism and violence. But out of the hundreds of the good, bad, funny and ugly posted on Facebook, two posts stand out the most to me and they were just a day apart.
First was a seminary classmate’s tragic status update posting that his 16 year old died on Thanksgiving day after falling from a building the day before. The young man battled with mental illness. The second was a Facebook message from a pastor who had a young person in the church who had just died from a gunshot wound that resulted from his mental illness. He, too, had been in and out of treatment for mental health challenges.
In addition to these Facebook status updates and messages over Thanksgiving break, I also learned that several people close to me were newly diagnosed with depression and taking anti-depressant medications. And I’m struck by what I’m calling “the long silence in-between the diagnosis and the death.” What happens to teens once they are diagnosed and medicated? What happens to their families? How are support systems strengthened for both? Why is there so much silence about mental illness?
It seems to me like there needs to be a lot more conversations about how to best support young people with mental health challenges and their families. We are too smart to allow shame and stigma to silence us any longer.
What do teens need to support them in their mental health recovery? What do the parents and siblings of teens living with a mental illness need to support them as they journey alongside their loved ones?
Recalling my own experience as a child living with a brother who had severe bipolar disorder, what we didn’t have (and what would have helped) was education about the disease. We didn’t know very much in the early 1990s about bipolar disorder or how it influenced behaviors and impacted relationships. And because each person experiences mental illness along a spectrum, no one description of a mental illness will fit everyone’s experience of it. Yet a basic understanding can be helpful as it opens up the possibility for dialogue.
I’m hopeful that communities of faith, congregations, can be places of hope and healing. This can be approached in the context of Christian compassion by providing teens and their families 1) education about mental health 2) support for teens in recovery for mental illness and 3) support to the familes.
Churches are, by design, communities of caring founded on Jesus’ mission to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. If churches don’t address the mental health crisis that our teens and their families are facing, then congregations risk neglecting populations for whom Jesus designated as neededing special care: children, the sick and the marginized.
As we experience the season of Advent, journeying underneath the stary heavens, we have the opportunity to shine the light of Christ for young people living with mental health challenges and their families who need reminders that God is with them…even as the shadows of mental illness threaten to overtake them.
In the adolescent psychiatric ward, God is there. In the eyes of teens desperately searching for hope, God is there. In the still small voice asking for help, God is there.
In our loving and caring for one another, God’s hope for the world is born.