This is Mental Illness Awareness Week, and I’m proud to be participating in this synchroblog to celebrate the launch of Sarah Lund’s new book, Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church. I come from a family in which mental illness — especially depression and anxiety disorders — and addiction have had a huge impact. As a little girl, I remember the great lengths my family went to in order to protect the secret that my mother had been hospitalized for depression. I felt the shame of it, even before I understood what it meant. I was afraid other kids at school would laugh at us if they knew, and any time a group on the playground was whispering, I was sure it was about me and my family.
The secret isolated me to the point I could no longer stand it. One day during reading time, I raised my hand to ask my fourth grade teacher whether the hospital in our story had doors that were locked at night, because “that’s how it is in the crazy hospital where my Mom is.” Just as I had feared, some of the students laughed, others whispered. My teacher decided to dismiss the class for an early recess, and on my way out to the playground, she took me aside. She let me know that this was not something my parents would want me telling people at school. This sort of thing should be kept at home, she told me. I felt myself sinking deeper into the shame, retreating further into the shadows of secrecy that separated me from those around me.
At home, we never talked about what was happening. We pretended everything was fine as we made the hour drive to the psychiatric hospital for weekend visits. When my mother was released from the hospital, I hated the new, different way people talked to her. Whether at the grocery store or at family reunions, I heard it in their voices — they thought she was fragile, unstable, crazy. They would never name the thing that had changed their treatment of her, but even as a nine-year-old, I knew.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that the unspoken vow of silence was broken. My incredibly courageous mother appeared on a local TV news discussion about mental illness. That made a huge crack in the wall that had formed between us and everyone else. I didn’t have to worry about protecting the secret anymore, and it was the first step in opening myself to honest relationships with others again, to getting in touch with my own feelings again, when they had scared me for so long. In my late 20s, I started seeing a counselor for the first time. Knowing that mental illness, like many other illnesses, can have a genetic component, I worried that I might have inherited the family curse. I knew that my mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother all had suffered from depression to varying degrees. I didn’t know for a long time that some of the men in the family also battled depression and anxiety; they were just better at hiding it, I suppose.
I was holding my breath when I turned 29, because in my memory, that was the age when Mom’s depression got out of control. That whole year, I waited for the day when I would find myself crying uncontrollably without knowing why, just as I remembered Mom doing. It didn’t come, at least not then. My depression manifested later, when the stress of a new job and the deaths of two people I loved wore me down, weakening my immunity. I was terrified to admit what was happening. In the cloudy memories of my childhood, depression meant being locked away in psychiatric hospitals for unknown lengths of time, and painful periods of trial and error with medications that might hurt almost as much as they helped. I couldn’t face that, I thought.
Finally, earlier this year, I found the courage to face the truth. I had been seeing counselors off and on for ten years, but I had pushed back against any suggestion of trying anti-depressant medication. I was scared of side effects. I feared losing myself. Would meds mute my emotions so much that I was no longer me? It took a brief but serious episode of suicidal ideation to convince me that it was time to give medication a try. The first few weeks were an adjustment, but after a little over a month, I felt more like myself than I had in years. My emotions weren’t gone; they were just no longer overwhelming or catastrophic. I found myself better able to focus at my job and in prayer, and I no longer trudged from place to place with the feeling that I was walking through Jell-o, putting effort into every step. I read old journal entries from months previous and wondered why it took me so long to seek help.
I admit that part of my hesitation was the fact that I am a minister. I worried what my colleagues and my patients would think if they learned that I suffered from depression. Would they no longer trust me to care for others? Would they think that I could overcome depression if only my faith were strong enough? These were somewhat valid fears. The church has not done a great job dealing with mental illness, often contributing to the stigma and sense of shame, preventing those who suffer from getting the help they need. Just a couple of weeks ago, a Southern Baptist conference affirmed the sufficiency of scripture in treating mental health issues from postpartum depression to bipolar disorder to panic attacks. These were some of the leaders of America’s largest Protestant denomination saying publicly that psychiatric interventions are not something that Christians should seek, and that medications for mental illness are “a gray area.”
This kind of thinking, which has been all too common in Christian circles, is in my opinion dangerous and wrong. The brain is an organ, and sometimes it malfunctions. I doubt very much that Dr. Mohler and others at this conference would state that scripture is sufficient for treating kidney disease or cardiopulmonary disorders. To place mental health issues in a category of being less serious or somehow less “real” than physical illnesses ensures that people who need the help of counselors, psychiatrists, and medical doctors to treat their sometimes life-threatening conditions will not seek it. That thought angers and saddens me.
I do not understand the worldview in which psychiatric and pharmaceutical interventions are at odds with the use of scripture. The Bible has been an important part of my continuing journey through depression, as have cognitive-behavioral therapy, pastoral counseling, and psychiatric medications. We are blessed to have all of these options available to us in 21st century America. I don’t question for a second that every one of them is a God-given tool for healing. Certainly they can be abused, like any gift, but they have powerful potential to help when used wisely and prayerfully. It’s my belief that they work best in combination with one another, rather than relying on one and shunning the others.
I am proud to be a practitioner of pastoral care in my work as a chaplain, and proud to be a survivor of mental illness (who still struggles sometimes). My prayer is that the church will one day be a safe haven from the stigma and shame connected to mental illness, a place where we can honestly share in community, trusting God to use us in our brokenness and work with us toward wholeness, taking advantage of every resource at our disposal. The little girl I was could have used a place like that, a place where I could be reminded that we are all some kind of crazy, and we are all some kind of blessed.