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Mental Health and the Church - Part One

Joyce's Response:

The Mental Health and the Church Conference hosted by Pastor Rick Warren sounded like a great idea.  In fact, I know it's a great idea because for 20 years, Glen and I have had a deep passion to teach evangelicals how to respond to persons living with mental illness.  Our words have fell on deaf ears.  Twenty years ago people could barely get the words "mental illness" out of their mouths without gasping and choking.  I am pleased to say people are getting more comfortable every day with those words. 

But this conference was supposed to lead to the culmination of standing together in suffering. As I finished listening to Rick Warren's closing comments, I was both stunned and angered at the neglect to convey true sympathy.  Very little of this message was communicated.  This was Rick's opportunity to draw the net and gather the people of God together who are suffering.  It was his chance to convey the deepest care, compassion and comfort.  Instead, I heard a message that conveyed a double minded view of mental illness.  I agree that we all have the power of choice.  I wholeheartedly, as does my husband, imbibe the philosophy of taking control of our actions, thoughts, decisions, eating habits and life style.  I have spoken this message for years.  But please hear me...persons like my husband who suffer with mental illness cannot merely or simply think, pray or read their way out of their condition.  Medicine must be and is the first step to getting well. Rick reverted to typical evangelical "talk" as he brought this conference to a close.  Sadly, I never heard a proclamation or commitment to standing with persons who are suffering. 

By and large, mainstream Christianity has repeatedly failed to convey their interest in providing mental health survivors with true sympathy.  The word sympathy means fellow-feeling or community feeling.  In other words, strong feelings of pathos for the suffering of another soul.  I have often been misled or coerced into casting my pearls before swine, only to be led into the trap of false hope.  To live with true vulnerability and share your deepest innermost pain with another soul is honest living at its' best.  But very often, as I have done this with Christians, they lack the deep ability to connect in the sympathetic way.  It is as though many eyes are glazed over with an opaque lens.  They see and hear only what makes them feel comfortable.  There is the perception that indeed persons with mental illness have a contagious leprous condition.  Fear of how to respond appropriately prevents people from responding at all.  Or it causes gross attempts at responding that result in awkward and uncomfortable and often failed connections.

So, how do we change this?  I have the brilliant idea that we simply get our heads out of the sand, first.  Second, start listening.  Open the door for conversation.  Cast off your stupid and ridiculous notions that persons with mental illness are all the negative things you have ever thought.  See them through the lens with which you view your own self and soul.  Make a concerted effort to connect.  Aha, lets just try this.  Let's agree to sympathize with those who have hurt or who are continuing to hurt.  Let us promise we will really love them as Jesus loves them.  Make no effort to fix them because they aren't any more broken than you and I!!!!  The quick fix cure alls are often the pathetic rituals or habits that people fall back into.  Please hear me - PERSONS WITH MENTAL ILLNESS DON'T NEED TO BE FIXED ANY MORE THAN YOU DO.  They have a disease, like cancer.  So how about making them dinner or how about taking them to dinner.  How about calling them weekly on the phone.  How about sending them flowers or a greeting card. 

This gets deeper.  Persons with mental illness have suffered many more losses than the average person.  This was covered briefly at the Mental Health and the Church conference.  I am pleased they made some attempt to cover this often over looked area.  Loss...it's the one factor that repeats itself over and over with mental illness.  My husband LOST 12 jobs in the first 10 years of our marriage.  We have LOST more friends than we have gained.  We have LOST almost all our family members.  We have felt LOST and still do in  mainstream evangelical churches. The loss is costly, friends.  It is costly financially, emotionally, physically and socially.  If people could understand then my life would be a lot easier.  The cost has been great and continues to be.  Living with mental illness means that loss is an inevitable part of daily existence.  Loss is almost to be expected and it will remain that way until people understand how they contribute to the loss. 

I could stay on this point for a long time. My husband and I cannot probably even calculate all the loss on paper.  This is where is gets sticky.  People fall off.  They don't want to talk about loss.  It's uncomfortable for often it reaches into our wallets.  Yes, it does.  It has reached into mine.  You can't have your husband lose a dozen jobs and not suffer financially for it.  In fact, the years we made a change and understood self-employment would work best for him, those were building years.  But not without cost and sacrifice. To maintain a healthy standard of living meant we would have to lower our expectations.  We understand what it is to go without...go without a lot of things people believe are essential to daily living!  We understand what it is to be together as a family and see everyone making plans to go out to dinner and know that we can't afford to go.  We then know what it's like to be cut off and have no one in the family offer any assistance.  I'm saying out loud the things people don't want to talk about it.  We have felt the acute loss over and over.  We watched our children miss out on opportunities because we didn't have the financial resources.  We have had financial opportunities ripped out from under us. 

Not only financial loss, but then the loss of relationships.  This number is staggering.  I'm writing about this in my book.  People who don't get it will drag you down eventually.  If they choose to live with their heads buried in the sand...or in denial, well then, I can't live there with them.  Over and over we banged our heads against the proverbial wall of family misunderstanding.  And over and over we tried to educate and reach out, but most often to little or no avail.  After a while, you must move on.  You must cut off that which no longer works. For to weep and wail over lost relationships will only lead to depression and anger.  Don't misunderstand, grieving is necessary.  I've just come out of a year and a half deep grieving period.  I never understood grief until I went through this time.  It was pure agony.  To finally puke out all the crap...years of injustice, loss and false hope... to finally make ones way to the place of soul acceptance.  That is truly thriving. 

We understand what it is like to sit week after week, year after year with no one making any attempts to connect on a soul level with us.  We understand how very painful it is to make the attempt to bridge the chasm and share our story with vulnerability and humility.  We understand how scalding it feels to shed hot tears of unwarranted shame and the deepest grief we have ever known.  We know how often we have spoken into a world void of compassion for the mental health survivors. 

My friends, this should not be, but it still is.  And last night, I listened to Rick Warren speak into the void and he had little words to fill that space.  I had hoped that the death of his son would be the catalyst to teach him to convey true compassion.  I'm sorry that I didn't hear it. I heard that the church is often the first place people go for help.  And that if fact, many people go to their clergy before they go to the psychiatrist.  Hold it.  Let's just stop right there.  If this is true, and I know it has been for us, then what are we going to do about it?  Are we going to keep spouting the same old talk that speaks condemnation and judgment upon them?  It is condemning to the mind of a man with OCD to say he can just "take every thought captive" and think his way out of the unwarranted, irrational thoughts.  It's just not so. 

Know that I am not stupid.  I understand and we have regularly practiced the power of positive thinking.  We believe in and practice the power of prayer in our daily lives.  We probably spend more time praying than the average saint.  Just sayin'!  We have faced more mountains and valleys, obstacles and difficulties than the average couple.  We have lost more than most and we are still here to talk about it.  With grit we claw our way forward.  With grace we almost daily posture our hearts to forgive the numb skulls who still just don't get it. 

I often grow weary in my well doing.  I know we are told not to, but imagine how difficult it is to know a better way and to understand people are not listening.  Glen and I understand what can be done to help.  We understand how to effectively manage our own lives.  We have done it with a fair amount of skill.  We know how to forgive, forget, and forge ahead when everything in us says quit.  Some people have never faced this foe a day in their lives.  We are the every day heroes who understand that the world of mental illness is not cured by "quick fix" remedies or perfectly concocted spiritual potions.  No, instead we understand that very carefully one must work out his own salvation with fear and trembling.  We understand what it means to manage your life and that you must cut off the ones you love because they are death to your well being.  We understand what it means to walk fearfully forward into the unknown and often alone road.  We understand how to link arms with each other and pull the other along when downcast and discouraged.  We understand that together we are a force to be reckoned with.  We are committed, connected to each other and we are creatively moving forward every day. 

It's our deepest passion to speak hope to others.  Hope that motivates you to thrive even when you live among the dead.  It's is almost as though many in this world are dead.  Mental illness is not real to them, so they are dead to me!!!!  It must be this way.  I must find a way to live and thrive.  I must cut off that which is no longer useful to me.  I must carve a new path in my life that makes room for my dreams, passions and pursuits to grow and flourish. 

This is the heart of Glen and myself.  We do this on a moment by moment basis.  We live daily with the knowledge that no man can steal our dreams.  We understand we must surround ourselves with people...few that they are...who understand what thriving means to us! 

I believe the church as a whole has a very long way to go in understanding mental health sympathy and advocacy.  I'm not sure she can get there.  I really have little hope for her as an institution and machine.  If she will lose her false identity and return the teachings of Christ, she may find her way. 





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