Tag Archives: mental illness

For the Love of Brains

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and May 4 is declared by the White House as National Mental Health Awareness Day. Let’s just come out and say it: brains. I have a seven year old son and so it’s  hard for me to say this word without hearing the zombie character from the 2012 film ParaNorman gurgling, “braaaaaaanes!” In the past year I have come to embrace the fact that mental health is the same as brain health, accepting  that mental illness is just as much a physical issue as heart disease and diabetes. 

Even as common as mental illness is in the US (one out of every four) still the stigma that we encounter related to mental illness is real and prevents people from getting help. Stigma can be deadly. 

I wonder if some of the stigma would decrease if we made an intentional shift in the way we think and talk about mental health and mental illness by focusing on its physical nature. By focusing on the brain, we focus in on the key area of the body where the illness originates. As we learn more through research about the physical nature of mental illness, and what is actually happening in the brain, we realize that people who have depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder have what is most often an “invisible disease” of the brain.

Now brain scans show us what depression looks like and we can see how the brain is impacted by different forms of brain disorders, diseases and illness. I believe that normalizing the spectrum of brain status is where we are headed in the future if we are serious about erasing stigma and saving lives. Everyone has a brain and each brain is different. 

Getting to a place of inclusion for each person, regardless of brain status, is not going to happen overnight. Yet it begins with honest and open conversations, sharing about personal experiences with our own brain, sharing our brain status.

What if we could talk as easily and openly about our mental health as we could about our physical health? Said differently, what if we could talk as easily and openly about our mental illness as we could about our physical illness? Aren’t they the same thing? My brain fitness depends not only on enough sleep, healthy diet and exercise, but also working with a skilled therapist, spiritual practices such as prayer, and time spent relaxing, all on a regular basis. My brain status today is improving, thanks to professional mental health care and intentional self-care. 

What if there was a useful tool, like Fitbit, but for the brain, that could help motivate us all to integrate daily practices of brain health into our lives by measuring our level of activity engaging in therapy, sleep, prescribed medications, and stress relieving activities…Brainfit, anyone? We need more ways to encourage people to take care of and love their brains (and not in a zombie way). We talk about loving our bodies, so why not talk about how to better love our brains.

As I talk with people across the country about mental illness and my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the silence about mental illness, family and faith, one thing I know for sure: even though we have come a long way in breaking the silence about mental illness, we are still too often reluctant and afraid to talk about it. I’m hopeful that conversations will continue to happen more and more because we need places where people can be educated, encouraged and embraced for who they are, regardless of brain status. 

So, for the love of brains, see a therapist, connect to a friend, take your meds if they help your brain, hold onto hope and share with someone your brain status. We’ve all got brains and they are all beautiful. 

Beauty Shop Secrects 

“So what do you do?” Wearing a chocolate brown smock with my wet hair up in clips I smile and say, “I do lots of things. It is complicated.” My new hairstylist nodded. Within thirty seconds our conversation landed on the topic of mental health. 

“I have a story that no one knows. Not anyone outside my family. We don’t tell anyone,” she said. And then with her voice just above a whisper, while spinning me around to get the right angle, she shared her secret. As I listened to the details of her story I heard in her voice and saw in her eyes and felt in my spirit how deeply this secret haunts her. 

“It is very sad,” I said about the suffering she shared. We agreed that not many people seemed to understand the real pain caused by severe and chronic mental illness. 

“Thank you,” I said. “For sharing your story with me. You inspire me and remind me how important it is to tell our stories.” 

I confess that at first I feared entering into this intense conversation with my stylist (a stranger I had  just met) with sharp objects near my scalp. But rather than lose her focus as she talked, she seemed to be even more present as she revealed a hidden part of herself to me. 

I don’t know if I will see her again. But I do know that her story will stay with me. And my faith in the redemptive power of story grows. The pain may still reside within the heart broken by mental illness, but it no longer aches alone. In the shared story, isolation is overcome and in the broken places, hope can begin to breathe again. 

Mental Illness She Spoke

Unknown to me are the people in the audience who show up to a talk I’m giving about mental illness. I do not know 99 percent of the people for whom I share my story. I look out into the tent or the church or the room or the web camera and I have never seen most of these people before. Yet what I do know is that chances are good that their lives have been impacted by mental illness: a friend, a lover, a family member, and/or themselves.

What I’ve learned in doing this work is that in the space that we create together through the sharing of our stories, grace enters in like a steady breeze. Then one-by-one, people lean into the flow of the conversation and open themselves up to being known. We are no longer strangers, carrying anonymous hurts and struggles. We are known in the naming of our shared shadows. We are named not by the illness itself, but by identifying as people who survive each day in the midst of such deep and chronic invisible pain. 

At the Wild Goose Festival on July 8, I spoke about mental illness and faith. I gave a testimony to the healing hope that can be found in the experience of telling the true stories of our lives. I shared how at my father’s funeral, speaking as his youngest child, I muttered words of God’s love for a man that was often hard to love. Severe and chronic, untreated mental illness, like a greedy thief, stole from us decades of goodwill and affection for our father. 

Then I shared how in the aftermath of witnessing my cousin’s execution, the trauma I suffered was fuel for advocacy efforts. Part of my cousin’s story included a long history of mental illness, including the psychosis during the crime that landed him in death row. Three years after the state of Missouri killed him by lethal injection, I served as a minister for outreach in Minneapolis. I soon found myself giving a testimony at a Minnesota Senate hearing when they were trying to reinstate the death penalty. It failed. 

Lastly, I shared how my brother asked me to be a witness for him at a critical point in his life. He was going before a judge with regard to his mental health. I witnessed the procedure but couldn’t bring myself to speak the words that my brother longed to hear. I chose to keep silent, regretting that I did not believe he was mentally well enough to be released from the hospital. I hoped that my presence alone was enough of a witness. I hoped my brother knew that I loved him. That he is known to me for the whole of life’s story. That he is not defined by his illness. 

Sometimes our greatest witness is not in the words we say, but in the way we show up. Showing up with no expectations of what we will get out of it. Showing up is an act of sacrifice, an offering of our very selves, our flesh and blood. At the funeral, at the courthouse, at the hospital. Simply being fully present to listen, see, and be with others in the midst of suffering is an act of grace. 

As long as our minds continue to be vulnerable to mental illness, we will need compassionate witnesses. Ones who see the suffering and help name it out loud. Ones who journey with and alongside. Ones who can stand up in court and in the hospitals as advocates. In our broken lives there is real power to bring about positive social change. It begins with sharing our true stories.