10 Things We Know About Mental Illness 

It’s the third birthday of Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church. To celebrate I am sharing 10 things I’ve learned along the way since the publication of the book on September 30, 2014. 

10. Mental Illness is stubborn.       It takes an average of 10 years for a person to seek professional help from the onset of symptoms and even then, only half of us who have symptoms seek professional help. Causes for this long delay in treatment (or lack of mental health treatment) range from denial to shame to fear to lack of awareness to lack of affordable healthcare to lack of mental health resources to lack of access to care. The truth is that mental illness as a brain disease can do a lot of damage before it is recognized and treated. It’s also true that we can be in recovery from mental illness and live full, abundant lives. 

9. Kids suffer from mental illness. This is the hard reality that I didn’t like hearing. At a conference a presenter who is an expert in pediatric psychology shared that symptoms of mental illness can be observed as young as age zero. Let that sink in. More and more children are expericing symptoms of mental illness. The fastest rate of growth for suicide is among young girls ages 8-11. There are not enough beds in pediatric psychiatric care centers. There are months long waiting lists to see therapists that work with kids.  

8. Anosognosia. I learned this word in a church basement in Columbus, Ohio. A mother and father shared their journey with their young adult son who lives with schizophrenia. He is unaware of his own mental illness–he has anosognosia–nd so he resists mental health treatment because he does not believe he has an illness, even though his symptoms are severe. Speaking from personal experience, it is terribly painful to love someone who has mental illness and their symptom prohibits them from self-awareness. My father died 10 years ago and he had anosognosia.I think that’s what killed him because he refused to get help.

7. People of Color. As a person with the multiple dimensions of privilege (white skin, cis-gender, graduate level education, and middle-class), I have built-in advantages when it comes to navigating the mental healthcare system.  For POC, because of systemic white supremacy, there are serious barriers to getting preventative mental healthcare, treatment and recovery. 

6. LGBTQ. We know that the highest rate of suicide is among trans teenagers, and among this group, those who are POC. Suicide is not the result of a person choosing to die. Suicide, as one survivor shared, is an attempt to “make the pain stop.” We are all responsible for creating communities that address the real pain felt and experienced by people who are LGBTQ, and as much as is in our power, to show nothing but love and respect. 

5. Most Churches are Silent. There remains a great need for communities of faith to break the silence about mental illness. When the church is silent about mental illness, a reality that directly impacts one out of every four people, the church fails to live the gospel. It is a sin to be silent. The devil loves our silence because that’s how he wins. Let love win. Break the silence. 

4. Blessed are the Crazy. I’ve spoken to why I chose this title many times and each time I say, yes, that’s what it’s called. It’s so true to me and my story. As a personal testimony it works for me. Now, if I were writing an essay for a professional medical journal, maybe not. However, for reaching the audience that I have had the tremendous pleasure and privilege to engage with these past three years, it’s been right.

3. Gratitude. I cannot thank you enough for joining me on this journey. For the thousands of conversations, questions, stories, tears, laughter, insights, and deep connections, I am filled with gratitude. I could not have ever imagined that breaking open my story would have brought us together in such beauty and love. Thank you, for in this holy sharing there is healing. The work continues.

2. Mental Illness is Real. Our bodies get sick and our physical organs can become diseased: the heart, the lungs, and the brain. Many types of mental illness, including the most severe are brain diseases. We would never say to a person with diabetes or heart disease to stop taking their medications. Mental illness is a physical illness and people who have it deserve respect, excellent healthcare and great compassion.

1. Hope is Real and Contagious. We can easily be overwhelmed with the suffering caused by mental illness. We know that a majority of people who live in the streets and who are incarcerated are people with untreated mental illness. The good news is that mental illness can be prevented (in many cases), treated and people can experience a life of recovery. We must not lose hope that abundant life is possible for all of us. We must not let go of hope. We must hold onto hope for one another. 

The Hurricane Within 

For people with mental health challenges, living in the path of a major hurricane can create an equally devastating hurricane within. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder already elevate ones vulnerability in times of stress. Then add an oncoming category five or four hurricane to the mix and imagine tripling the feelings of terror and dread. 

We think about evacuating or putting up shutters. We plan to buy more water, more batteries and hunker down. Maybe we also buy more medication. But what about people who do not have access to medication or who can not afford these things? And how do you prepare your mind for a hurricane and the whirling storm within?

While living in Florida for nine years, I learned about “hurricane parties” that bring people together so that people are not waiting it out alone. This helps. Being alone with the anxiety and fear can elevated already intense emotions. Now is the time to reach out to one another.   This is especially important for people living with a mental health challenge. 

I’ve been on the phone with my two brothers and sister, all who either evacuated Florida or are hunkering down. We talked about the emotional stress and anxiety that this hurricane triggers. It’s all the uncertainty of the path, the pending destruction and damage, the second guessing of choices (should I stay or go?), the feeling of helplessness, and the ultimate fear of the unknown. For my brother who lives with bipolar disorder, this hurricane is not just out there…it’s inside, too. And I find it making its way into me, even though I live in the “crossroads of America.”

Let’s make a promise: as much as possible, we will not let our sisters and brothers experience this or any other hurricane alone. Something happens to the inner hurricane when it is accompanied by a loved one, a caring friend, a neighbor or a Good Samaritan. The speed of the stress thinking slows and the heart rate calms and the spinning mind begins to settle some. 

Take a moment now to reach out any way that you can to one another. For we all have a hurricane within, some are category five, some four, some lesser level threes, some two or level one and some are tropical storms, not as intense. Just some wind and rain. But we all know the feeling of being overwhelmed by a strange and unwelcome stirring within that we wish we could stop. We need help.

What we can stop is the fear of being unloved. We can show our love and care by expressing them now. Do not wait. The hurricane is coming. We can prepare our minds and hearts. We can love one another. This is what we do as a human family. This is who we are when looking into the eye of the hurricane. Instead of closing our eyes, we open them and we gaze upon each other with love. 

Breaking the Silence about Kids and Mental Illness 

Just today I gently reminded my young son that one of the most important jobs I have is to help him grow. That is why, I explain, as parents we pay attention to caring for his whole body as he grows, including his brain and his mental health. There’s a lot of talk about helping our kids succeed in life. But what we are talking less about is how to support our children’s mental health so that they will have the mental resiliencey to flourish. 

I admit that the main reason mental health is on my radar as a parent to a young child is because we know he is at an increased risk for developing a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and bipolar disorder because both sides of the family have experience with a diagnosis. So we feel morally responsible for taking protective and proactive measures. Given that twenty percent of Americans experience a diagnosed mental illness, it appears that my family is not alone in navigating raising a child who is at increased risk.

When it comes to good brain hygiene or mental health basics, in addition to enough sleep and healthy foods, for us as a family three areas of intentional management with our child are key: quality relationships, regular exposure to the outdoors and nature, and limited exposure to addictive electronic games. We make family dinner and conversation a daily ritual, strengthening our emotional connections and bonds. We choose opportunities for education and recreation that regularly expose our child to the healing and renewing properties of nature. We talk to our child about the importance of setting limits on screen time and we closely monitor exposure to addictive digital games.

All of this is very intentional and we don’t know for sure it will work in the end. I’ve been following research that tracks the correlation between positive mental health and close family bonds, time in nature, and less time plugged into electronics. What I can tell you is that so far setting our focus as a family in these three areas of relationships, outdoors and nature and limits on electronics has helped to guide us on a path that feels life-giving. We don’t always meet our own expectations. Sometimes we solo off and eat snacks instead of a meal. Sometimes we stay inside on a beautiful day. Sometimes we let the usage of electronics go unchecked. But when these things happen, it doesn’t feel good. Instead, it feels very good when we honor our family sabbath on Sunday, electronic free day, and go to church, have a picnic outside and go for a walk in the woods.

Maybe what we are stumbling into is some sort of brain diet for kids. Or to say it another way, mental health hygiene for families with children. As I’ve come to embrace my family of origin’s own mental health history, sharing my stories in my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the silence about mental illness, family and church, I find myself thinking more about the future and less about the past. What I’ve learned is that sometimes severe mental illness can be prevented. This is a great desire growing within me and an audacious dream that I have: to some day prevent severe mental illness in children. 

I believe that since we know so much more now about mental health, that we have a great opportunity to take what we have learned and apply this knowledge to help future generations so that there is less stigma and less suffering related to mental illness and more acceptance and compassion. When I talk to my son about how much we care for him, including his brain, I think he gets it. He wants to grow big and strong, so now he knows that includes his mental health, too.