As I scan across the byte-sized headlines filling my social media accounts, an increasingly common phrase beckons my attention. “Mental Health” is finally gaining a common place in our cultural vernacular. In the midst of strong opinions regarding the current ills of the American narrative, “Mental Health” becomes a tossed-around phrase connected to resolutions. But, as I begin to read the articles, tweets, or memes, I pause in frustration. The voice in my head screams, “Does anyone really understand the implications of those two words?” I do. Our family has encountered them.
On the one hand, I am glad that mental health is finally gaining recognition as a viable element of wholeness. On the other hand, the use of the phrase often becomes a quick way of fixing a problem. Living in uncertainty leaves us restless. If a solution to the horrifying events in our newsfeeds can be identified then maybe the crisis won’t hit home. It’s even easier if the solution is left to others to implement. But I know first hand that it takes a village to bring about changes that transform the lives of our neighbors.
I have spent a majority of my parenting life residing in an “under the radar” community. We find hope in sharing the space for others while they grieve the unexpected story that unfolded in their lives. When a child struggles, the whole family is affected. Together we grieve, hold out hope, bare our souls, pray, and inform. Children have attained sobriety and then relapsed. Marriages have broken. Siblings have acted out their feelings of neglect. Young adults have made heartbreaking decisions that are no reflection on the parenting skills of those who raised them. Suicide attempts are everyday conversation. The advantage of a digital world is the opportunity to connect with others who share similar experiences. Finding others who can identify with the affliction you face reminds you that your struggle is affirmed.
While finding community with others sharing similar narratives is expected, recognizing it as one of the few places free of stigma and shaming should not be a reality. People fear what they don’t understand. Because mental health is not an illness with a “visible” sign and often involves behavioral symptoms that violate social mores, response to those affected is often perceived as unsupportive. Navigating mental illness on behalf of self or a friend/relative becomes a lonely experience. It’s been said that it’s a “no casserole” illness.
Many people are unaware of the challenges that exist to obtain help. Certainly, we can all benefit from slowing down our lives, making changes that may relieve stress, and increasing our focus on spiritual wholeness, exercise and healthy eating. However, for individuals needing professional treatment, running through the obstacle course of healthcare bureaucracy leaves the mind and body even more weary. “The United States is suffering from a dramatic shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health providers. And the shortfall is particularly dire in rural regions, many urban neighborhoods, and community mental health centers that often treat the most severe mental illnesses. “(“Addressing the Escalating Psychiatrist Shortage.”)
A friend of mine accompanied his young adult daughter to the emergency room during an episode of instability in her previously treated illness. They were told to look for help in another state. The closest, most immediate source involved flying several states away. Currently the emergency room is still the primary entry for hospital admission for treatment. The average wait time is three days for admission. Some patients wait those days in the fringes of the unit on gurneys. When my child was admitted, we were scolded by the social worker for wasting their time. While more effective venues for treating psychiatric crises are on the rise, it is imperative for society to recognize that all deserve the dignity of being cared for respectfully despite the frustrating structures in place. We all reflect the Imago Dei to one another.
What does loving your neighbor as yourself look like when addressing the issue of mental health? Ponder these questions: Are you willing to have your insurance premiums increased so that adequate coverage is available to all? Are you willing to support a family in some sort of crisis by giving time and resources (to reduce traumatic effects to children?), Are you willing to volunteer at a school or organization in order to build and model healthy relationships? Are you willing to adopt or support families who have struggles (again reducing the effects of trauma)? Are you willing to support teen parents in some tangible way? These are hard questions but are necessary if we are committed to being catalysts for change.
Practical ways to help
I wrote an article on how the local congregation can minister to the needs of families who seek healing from both the actual affliction itself as well as the pain of stigma. People fear what they don’t understand. The consequences become visible through stares, judgmental comments, or voices proclaiming skewed theologies of parenting and faith. What does it look like to lay down our knee-jerk reactions and learn what is unknown? To simply offer presence and unconditional love?
What can you offer to help your actual neighbor? This post features some specific actions that are helpful. When someone suffers an injury or physical illness, our immediate response is to want to give of ourselves in some tangible manner. In our humanity, we empathize with their pain. To some degree, we jump into a fix-it mode in order to relieve them (and ourselves) of the reminder that human life involves brokenness. Because mental illness is often misunderstood by others, people facing crises often go unsupported.
I am thankful for those who have carried us to Jesus when our family tried to find our footing and fumbled around in the darkness. I have learned what sacred connections look like and how God’s face appears in the midst of them. I am mindful of the ways Jesus has resurrected parts of our lives that felt dead. To that end, I am committed to sharing out of our broken places. We all have them.
“All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times that come from following the Messiah, but no more so than the good times of his healing comfort—we get a full measure of that, too” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, The Message).