Category Archives: book

Still, Small Voice 

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.

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. 

When God Cries

Desmond Tutu’s beloved children’s book God’s Dream describes a young boy who cries when he realizes that his selfish actions have caused a rift in a friendship with a classmate. Tutu writes that God cries, too, when we hurt others and are ourselves hurt. I’m taken by this sentiment of God crying with us; and the message that God is not too holy to feel. God is not above emotion, but God is below. We find God alongside us in the depths of our suffering; God cries, too.

In my children’s sermon about mental health, I show the children a small, unopened package of tissues. I ask a volunteer to open the package and share with us what they discover inside. Carefully a tissue emerges from its package. Then I ask for a tissue from the child. I share that I need it to wipe my eyes because I had been a little teary that morning. 

We talk about how when we have big feelings that don’t have words, they come out as tears. I share Tutu’s book, showing them the page where the boy is crying. I read to them about how when we are crying, God cries, too.

We talk about how tissues are also used when we are sick and have a runny nose, a bad cold or a sinus infection. Sometimes when we are very sick, we go to the doctor and get medicine. 

Our brains, just like our hearts and our lungs, need to be healthy. But sometimes when we are not feeling good, we go see a doctor. I share that my brother went to the doctor because his brain was not feeling good. The doctor gave him medicine to help him feel better.

Now my brother is home from the hospital and his brain is doing better. Mental health means taking care of our whole body; including our brain. When our brain is healthy, we feel better.

Sometimes we cry when we are feeling sad. And when we cry, God is with us. When we are sick and not feeling good, God is with us. We are never alone because God is always with us. God loves us even when we cry and when we feel sick, even when we are happy and feel healthy.

Let us pray: Thank you God for tears that express how we are feeling. Thank you God for our brains that help us know your love. Thank you God for mental health and for people who help us feel better when we are sick. We love you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.