Saturday, April 29, 2017

In Suffering, Hope


“What do you do when you have anxiety and depression?” she asked. I’ve heard this question many times before but this time I was especially touched. I had just concluded a presentation on mental health and wellness for about 90 students at an area high school this past Monday. The student appeared to be very fragile; almost like a piece of porcelain,that if mishandled, would immediately shatter.

“How long have you been experiencing this?” I responded.

“I’ve had it for 18 years,” she replied. “Hmmmm,” I thought. She did not appear to be any more than 17 (or 18 at the very least). I surmised that what she was trying to say was that she has lived with this condition most her life.

“Are you seeing someone for this?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “I have a therapist and a psychiatrist.”

“Good,” I said, “That’s very important.”

At this point I was trying to find something to share with her to help her; you know, the typical things like exercise, mindfulness meditation, relaxation techniques, deep breathing, and so forth.

“I’m sorry but she has to catch her bus,” a teacher said. And that was it. She walked away.

I recall how the student looked: concerned, and simply just sad. I felt so bad for her. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered a young person who is looking for answers to a question that so often does not have a simple answer. In fact, one out of 4 youth between the ages of 13-18 lives with a diagnosable mental health condition. Each time I try my best to offer a word of encouragement and inject a sense of hope into the conversation. But try as I might, I often feel like I fall short of being able to provide the youth with what they are truly looking for: a sense of relief and the knowledge that they are going to be okay. For someone so young to be living with any kind of mental health condition, life is filled with uncertainty. “Will I be like this all my life?” “Why do I have to take this medication?” as well the feeling that this battle is theirs alone and that no one truly understands their condition.

I know this feeling all too well because I was once that person too. But one thing that I had that some young people lack is a sense of a Power greater than themselves. For me, this was God. Now, I’m not so na├»ve to think that it was God alone that has helped me in my recovery. There have been many elements: family, friends, support groups, therapists, psychiatrists, exercise, and other self-care activities.

I’ve learned both from my own personal experience, as well as from others, that recovery is very personal. And what works for one, may not work for another. But there are certainly many common elements. In the end, once someone finds what works it’s imperative that they stick to this, as long as it continues to provide positive results. Mind you, changes happen and adjustments may be needed. This is often the case, especially over time.

When I met the young woman at the high school, I wanted more than anything to tell her that things were going to be okay. I know that this is what Christ would say to her. For this is the message that was given to so many he encountered in his short life. While he never promised that things would be easy, he did provide his followers with a sense of hope for an existence that would be better than the one they currently had.

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

You see, Christ is a source of never ending hope. Hope for a better life. Hope for relief. Hope for the knowledge that things are going to be okay.

I so want to let the young woman I met know that things can get better. Not that things would necessarily be easy, but that with the proper care, support, and measure of work, her condition can improve.

As she suffers, Christ shares in her suffering. For it is through her lived experience that a better life is possible. It is my sincere hope that she finds relief from her suffering. She deserves nothing less. 

Photo Credit - coming home.org.au

Monday, April 3, 2017

WISE Up for Mental Health

On Friday, March 31 the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network sponsored the first W.I.S.E.(Welcoming Inclusive Supportive Engaged) Conference at the First Central Congregational  Church in Omaha, Nebraska. It was my first visit to the Cornhusker State (unfortunately, Warren Buffett was busy, although his office building was right next to the hotel where I stayed). WISE is an outreach and education program for churches to be welcoming for those living with mental health challenges through a variety of resources. It was approved at the UCC General Synod in 2015.

I was on the planning team and also presented a workshop entitled, “Mental Health and the Church: How, When, and Why to Help.” It focused on signs and symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia as well as that of substance abuse. I also spoke about barriers to effective ministry, cultural considerations, stigma in the church, and various models of successful mental health-related programs (Model of Friendship, Creating Caring Faith Communities, and Communities of Compassion and Justice).

There were also workshops on how to become a WISE Congregation by Rev. Sarah Griffith-Lund and Rev. Salome As-Salaam,  how to develop a spiritual support group for mental health and wellness by Rev. Alan Johnson, and one on prevention, intervention, and postvention for suicide by Rev. Rachael Keefe.

The keynote address was delivered by Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith-Lund, Vice-President for Christian Theological Seminary and author of Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about MentalIllness, Family and Church (Chalice Press). Rev. Lund provided a moving story of her personal experience as a family member of individuals living with mental illness. I’ve actually had the opportunity to hear Rev. Lund deliver a talk at the UCC Widening the Welcome Conference in 2015 but it was still as powerful this time as it was the first time I heard it. I highly recommend her book.

The topics of mental health and the church are often mutually exclusive. There are some churches that disavow those living with mental health challenges. There are some that stigmatize those with mental illness and do not offer a place free of judgment. There are those who say, “Pray it out,” or treat the mental health condition as if it is a symptom of demonic possession. And there are those that remain silent.

One of the objectives of the WISE initiative is to approach these issues head on by educating congregations about the facts surrounding mental health disorders and providing practical tools to equip both clergy and laity about being a more open community. On the website there is even a toolkit for churches as well as resources such as the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness, NAMI Faithnet and Pathways to Promise.

The theme of the conference was from Isaiah 43:1, ““Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” This scripture passage is especially meaningful to me in that it is a reminder that no matter what, God accepts me and loves me as I am despite the many challenges I have. Also, when reflecting on this particular scripture I am assured that God has called me (and others) to do the work of helping people in need in God’s name. And for those of us that serve on the UCCMental Health Board of Directors it is spreading the Good News and helping churches within (and outside) the denomination to embrace the teachings of Christ in respect to those who are so often “invisible” in our congregations.

To get more personal, I’d like to recount a story from when I was struggling with my diagnosis of bipolar disorder and was without a church home. It was in the summer of 1984 and I was living on the West Side of Buffalo, NY, my hometown. On one sunny Sunday morning, I walked to the Unitarian Universalist Church on nearby Elmwood Avenue. I visited there particularly because the pastor who confirmed me, Rev. Philip Smith, was there with his congregation from Pilgrim-St. Luke’sUCC, whose church had a massive fire that previous winter. Many years later I joined as a member, recalling the welcoming presence I felt when I was in need.

I recall how utterly confused I was. I was dealing with symptoms of mania and found them difficult to manage. After the worship service, I remember speaking with Rev. Smith and becoming distraught to the point of breaking down into tears. But Rev. Smith was patient with me. He didn’t judge me or tell me that I just needed to “pray harder.” He just listened. There were other times he ministered to me as well, like the several times I called him in the middle of the night or when he visited me in the Erie County Medical Center psychiatric unit. In many ways, Rev. Smith was embodying what the concept of what WISE is all about.

Currently we are working to spread the word about the WISE Covenant and help churches throughout our denomination to adopt this program in their congregations. There have already been several churches who have voted to become a WISE church.

The concept behind the WISE Covenant is not unique to the UCC. There are other faith traditions that embrace the practice of compassion and care for those of differing cognitive abilities. But the more that do so, in my humble opinion, the better the work we are doing as God’s servants. So, whether you are a member of the UCC, another denomination or faith tradition, or even someone who chooses a different path altogether, remember that there are people who deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and love no matter what their challenge may be, whether it be physical, mental or emotional.

Be well.


p.s. Keep an eye out for the UCC Mental Health Network blog, "The Journey", beginning on  May 1 and weekly thereafter. More information to follow.