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Mental Health and Spirituality

Guest Post by Brandon Smee

Photo by  whoislimos  on  Unsplash

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

For years, Sunday was always the day of the week I dreaded most. For most people, church is a place to step outside of the stress of the work week, to encounter the goodness and peace of God, and to receive encouragement for the challenges ahead. But without fail, I would walk out of almost every service on edge, my thoughts spiraling down at an alarming rate.

The same thing was happening during meetings throughout the week, after small groups and worship services. I seemed to struggle to connect with God in worship like my friends, and I became hyper-sensitive to every sermon point, agonizing over whether I was in or out of God’s moral will. I was constantly anxious that I wasn’t satisfying all of God’s expectations for me, and church would remind me of these fears and keep them churning in my mind for hours and days.

I still loved God, and I loved my church and my community there, but as my anxiety increased, my relationship with God and with my church suffered. It wasn’t until I began seeking out help for mental health that I began to understand what was going on and that I was not alone.

Every year in America, millions of Christians experience mental health struggles, and while for many of them faith can be a source of comfort, it can also become a source of distress. For people of faith, mental health struggles often take on spiritual overtones. Many people shame themselves for not overcoming their anxieties with faith, or ruminate over a thousand miniscule spiritual shortcomings. Others may beat themselves up for not experiencing joy or spend hours just trying to feel close to God.

We are tempted to examine our spiritual lives with painstaking scrupulosity, looking for the defect that must be the root of our struggle. “If only I had a better relationship with God,” we tell ourselves, “then I wouldn’t feel this way.”

The reality is that people can experience mental health challenges regardless of the quality of their relationship with God. Great figures like Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, and Charles Spurgeon, to name a few, suffered severely with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, yet God used their spiritual walks to impact millions of people.

Depression, anxiety, bipolar and the like are not signs of weak faith but rather opportunities for our faith to shine through. As James 1:2-3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” James isn’t saying to stuff our emotions and claim we’re joyful; he’s challenging us to recognize that our struggles test our faith and reveal it to be genuine. Instead of seeing our mental health issues as a deficit of faith, we can realize that God is at work in us, sustaining us and giving purpose to our suffering.

While church can be difficult for many with mental health challenges, there are ways we can find peace, hope, and restoration in our communities in the midst of the struggle. Here are just five tips I’ve learned through my journey.

1. Savor what allows you to connect with God.

When mental health issues develop, it can seem like God is behind a wall. None of the things that used to allow us to relate with him seem to work. It can be hard to focus on Scripture, or wake up early for devotions. Maybe you can’t feel the same emotions in worship, or you find yourself overwhelmed by all the people, lights, and music at a service. Thankfully, God graciously accepts many kinds of worship. There are dozens of spiritual disciplines that Christians have used across the centuries to connect to God.

As you have the opportunity, try different ways of reading Scripture, praying, worshipping, and reflecting. As you find practices that make sense to you, savor them and work them regularly into your life. When Israel was journeying across the wilderness, God appeared in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night; we find that God shows up in different ways under different circumstances, even as God leads us to the same destination.

2. Know your limits.

All humans, not just those with mental health diagnoses, have limits! During the middle of a hard episode, aspects of church can become difficult to get through. If a loud worship service is overstimulating, give yourself permission to walk out (maybe invite a friend to come with you). Don’t force yourself to sit through a service or small group if you’re having a hard time. God desires mercy over sacrifice.

Instead, give yourself space to breath and ground yourself, and go back in when you are ready. Once you realize you are not trapped in the pews, the tension and anxiety around church can decrease, and worship services become less about performance and more about meeting God with the people of God.

Photo by  KEEM IBARRA  on  Unsplash

Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

3. Embrace community.

A great temptation for those of us facing mental health challenges is isolation. Others can have difficulty understanding what you are going through, and a mental health episode can make you feel like you have no energy left for connecting with people. But God has designed us to function best both in faith and in life when we are walking with other people. When we embrace community, we can find people to pray, seek God, and have fun with.

Moreover, being with other people can help take our focus from our own struggles to those of others, allowing us to have a positive impact in the lives of those around us. Whether it’s a small group, a Bible study, or a volunteer group, it’s a great idea to find people to walk with.

4. Set up healthy boundaries.

At the other extreme from isolation, mental health struggles can lead us to rely too heavily on others, whether we find comfort in them solving our problems or us solving theirs. In Galatians 6, Paul balances his command to “Bear one another's’ burdens” with the admonition that “each one should carry their own load.”

We support each other, but at the end of the day, we should be carrying our own load, no more and no less. When we find ourselves beginning to rely on a relationship or person at church to take care of us emotionally, keep tabs on us spiritually, or make decisions for us, it’s time to take responsibility for these things ourselves.

While it can sound scary to limit the amount we rely on a friend, it is actually empowering and freeing to carry what God has given us to carry, as it allows us to trust in an unfailing God to support us rather than another person. In addition, a mental health diagnosis in no way diminishes our worth or value as Christians, and as such we should not be okay with people taking advantage of our struggle, abusing or manipulating us, but we should assert boundaries as the respect that comes with bearing God’s image.

5. Maintain a perspective of grace.

Grace is unmerited favor, and God extends it to us abundantly. In our mental health journey, we will find that at many turns our spiritual lives are difficult, and as humans we often mess up and sin. In the process, there is grace for when we walk imperfectly, and grace to strengthen us as we continue toward the future.

Moreover, there is grace to extend to other people who have difficulty understanding or supporting us in the struggle. For people who don’t experience a mental health challenge, what you’re going through may be totally unfamiliar, and they may say or do things in response that hurt more than help. There is grace for them and for you as you seek healing and restoration. As we hold onto that grace, we will find peace, hope, and love accessible to us along the way.

Wrapping It Up

Jesus invites all people to come to the Father through him, including those who experience mental health challenges. He healed whoever he came in contact with, and he has the power to restore the broken thought patterns, neural connections, and trauma that underlie these issues. As long as we remain in the process of healing, may church be a place where we find the love of God among the people of God, and receive empowerment and encouragement to move toward recovery.

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Mental Illness: Supporting the Whole Family

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash  

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash 

Sometimes we're the ones experiencing mental illness, sometimes it's our friends and family...and sometimes it's a loved one's family member. It could be a best friend's mom, a cousin's boyfriend, or a coworker's daughter. We begin to find ourselves "supporting the support," or offering our encouragement to the ones directly supporting someone with mental illness.

Since this can be a difficult situation to navigate, last week I sat down with my friend Kate, who happens to be a wealth of wisdom when it comes to having a family member with a mental illness. Part of Kate’s story includes her mom receiving a bipolar diagnosis when Kate was young. 

While each person’s experience is different (and a lot depends on what kind of mental health struggle a family member has), Kate shared some practical tips we can all learn from. Here are a few of the suggestions she offered.

It’s really important to show grace.

When Kate’s mom began experiencing symptoms of mental illness, her whole family had a hard time. Her sisters struggled with the change in their mom’s behavior, and her dad had to learn a whole new way to talk to his wife. As a family, they were still identifying triggers and learning how to help their mom cope—and learning to cope themselves. 

When it became apparent that loud worship music at church was a trigger, her family began skipping church based on how her mom was doing. It was extremely helpful (and healthy) when others responded with grace rather than judging the family for being absent some Sundays.

Speculation will only feed circles of gossip, and aggressive questioning conveys a greater interest in drama than in a person's well-being. Instead of these responses, consider telling an absentee's family member, “Say hi to so-and-so for me” instead of asking why or passing judgment.

Actions speak louder than words. Invest in the person in front of you.

Kate recalls teachers and others in her life telling her, “I’m here if you ever need anything.” Yet because the relationship they had with Kate was only surface-level, if Kate actually did need anything, she wasn’t likely to come to them.

Certainly, these comments were well-meant. Yet the weight they carried depended largely on the depth of relationship already established. Offers to be there for people aren’t wrong, but they could come off as flippant or pity statements if an established depth of relationship is absent. Bottom line: invest in the person in front of you—as a person first and foremost, not as a victim.

If you’re close to the family, express your concern and check up on them.

“It meant a lot when people who were already a part of my life asked how I was doing,” Kate said. Her best friend would ask how her mom was doing and consistently check up on her. When the people closest to Kate asked meaningful questions and listened, she felt loved and cared for. They walked with Kate through the ups and the downs, and they continued to ask how her mom was doing even after things got better.

The support Kate received from the people she trusted was one of the most important things she experienced during that season of life. If you're walking closely with a family with mental health challenges, know that the love and support you're offering is one of the greatest gifts you could ever give.

Don’t use a serious topic as a conversation filler.

While for most people, “How’s your mom?” may be an innocuous query, when that family member struggles with mental illness, it turns into a deeply personal question. Unless you already have an established, deep relationship with someone, it’s best to avoid using the topic of mental illness as a small-talk conversation piece after church. Not only can it put that individual in an awkward spot, it can also be perceived as gossip. Instead, consider asking about plans for the day or offering news about your own life.

 

It’s okay not to ask about family every time you see someone.

When people constantly asked about her family, Kate remarked that it could ”feel like rapid-fire.” It was exhausting always explaining things or updating people. Sometimes Kate just needed a break from thinking and talking about what was going on at home.

As mentioned before, actions speak louder than words. Be creative about how you show you care. If you’re not walking through life day by day with someone, it’s okay not to ask about their family at every encounter. It doesn’t mean you’re ignoring their pain; you might be alleviating it a little by giving them a break from talking about it.

Never assume.

Today, Kate’s mom is doing great! Occasionally, people who haven’t kept up with Kate’s family will see her and jump straight to saying, “Ohh…how’s your mom?” 

While coming in and out of people’s lives is inevitable, it’s important to distinguish between knowing where a family is at one point in the journey and assuming they’re still there, years later. It can be helpful to start by asking how things have been going instead of assuming someone’s health status has remained static for years.

Know each person is unique and will handle situations differently.

In Kate’s family, this was evident by her sister’s various responses to her mom’s illness. Each one was affected in different ways, and they chose various methods of handling the stress.

Everyone’s experience is different, and each person will have unique needs. While these tips resonate with Kate, they aren’t meant to be a cookie cutter approach. In fact, they’re meant to show just the opposite: that mental illness is a complex issue, and so is walking alongside the family of someone with a mental illness!

 

*Huge thanks to Kate Padilla, who was so open and willing to share stories from the past. Her family has used their experience with mental illness as a catalyst to help thousands of people through Mental Health Grace Alliance, an organization co-founded by Kate’s dad. If you’re looking for Christian mental health resources and programs for individuals and churches, check it out!

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Postpartum Depression: What I Should Have Said

Guest post by Jessica Arrington

Arringtons walking.JPG

Recently, I saw a fellow Facebook user post about Postpartum Week. She shared her experience. I was inspired by her courage. I liked her post, thanked her for sharing her story, and turned around to share mine.

I received some of the same feedback—people thanking me for sharing my story. From my life experiences, I have come to believe that talking about our struggles helps us. Yet, when we share our experiences, our struggles, and how we came out on the other side…that, my friends, helps others. When we make the switch from talking to help ourselves to sharing to help others—that is what changes the world.

So, when I was talking to Allison about sharing my experience on Facebook, I told her that there were some responses that I didn’t know what to do with. Comments like, “Oh, I didn’t know you went through that” or “I’m so sorry you went through that.” I just shrugged them off. In my mind I was comforted, but I felt like I was supposed to share. I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Period. End. Of. Story.

My response to them was like a slap in the face—my own face. I’m sure my response didn’t help them, either. Shrugging off these responses does nothing to change how we help mamas going through postpartum struggles right now. So, what do we DO to help Postpartum Mamas? What should we say?

What I should have said was: “Thank you. I’ve learned a lot about what we can do to help moms struggling right now.”

If you are a hubby to a new mom, or if you love a new mom, here are some things you can do:

Say nothing.

Just listen. Odds are, Mom just wants to be heard. Listen to what she is saying, and give feedback when she’s open to hear it.

Help Joyfully.

When she asks you to change baby’s diaper, take out the trash, help with chores. Complaining and grumbling may make her feel bad or frustrated. She’ll try to do it all on her own, and taking on the responsibility all on her own can cause more anxiety and depression.

Get her into community.

There are many supports out in the community to help new moms. If she isn’t doing it herself, stop by her house, bring her food, hold baby while she sleeps. Moms—new moms especially—need community. Be there fore her. She’ll join the other supports when she’s ready!

Gently let her know that getting help is okay and even a good thing.

Honestly, if she’s not ready, she’s not ready and she won’t hear it. If she’s open, let her know that getting help or seeing a counselor is good to do. Check to see how much your insurance will cover or if your employer has an Employee Assistance Program.

Let her get filled up.

Ask her how much time she needs to step away and what does she want to go do. Encourage her to do it. Lovingly tell her to get out of the house and not come back for an hour. If she doesn’t know what she wants to do, she’ll figure it out in due time.

Don’t wait.

Know the signs. Is she acting differently than before baby? Don’t wait until she’s hit rock bottom to encourage or help her. By then, it will be a lot harder and a lot more work for her to get back to her healthy self.

This isn’t an end-all and be-all. Take from it what you will. If one thing works, great! You know the “new mom” in your life best. Use your gut instinct on the things you think she needs, and just show her love.

The Arrington family welcoming their newest addition!

The Arrington family welcoming their newest addition!

 

Big thanks to Jessica for writing this guest post! Her openness about experiencing postpartum depression has taught me so much, equipped me to walk alongside women with postpartum depression, and inspired me to keep talking about mental health, even when it's hard.

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Hurricane Harvey Guilt

This may sound odd, but I've found myself dealing with a sense of guilt the past few days as I scroll through social media and see the flooding Harvey is causing. The dramatic pictures and news headlines on webpages make me sad for a moment, but it's the pictures on Facebook of friends' homes and neighborhoods destroyed that make my heart sink into my gut and stay there for a long, long while.

Photos of the home of the Millers, some family friends (the water continued to rise to the second story)

Photos of the home of the Millers, some family friends (the water continued to rise to the second story)

The Millers' fence

The Millers' fence

Houston is my hometown, and I feel guilty for not being there now. As humans—and especially as a nurse—when we see something dear to our hearts hurting (a person, a family, a city, or a whole area of the state), it's our instinct to want to go to them, to help, to fix. Mainly to fix. 

I don't want to watch Harvey devastate Houston anymore. I don't want to watch people hurting anymore. I want to fix it. I want to be there.

But here I am, in Waco, Texas, within driving distance of Houston, but I'm not on the road; I'm sitting at my kitchen table typing on my computer, with air conditioning and electricity, a cup of hot coffee, and definitely no flooding outside my doors.

This is where the guilt creeps in. Guilt because I am safe and sound, and so many people are not. Guilt because I am not on my way to Houston to help, and Houston needs nurses right now. I have nursing friends who have been posting about their long haul at the hospital—two days, three, maybe more, trapped at their workplace and working insanely long shifts to care for their patients.

I've thought about going to provide relief as a nurse. I've prayed about it. I've even shed a few tears about it. In my pride, I want to go: I want to be a helper and a healer and a fixer. But I cannot go, not right now. The decision to move out of the nursing world is all too fresh, and I'm still recovering from burnout. To volunteer as a nurse to help with the devastation would only serve to devastate me

In the short term, it seems selfish. In the long term, it seems selfless. Because Houston is not a relief project for me; it's my hometown and always will be. I will always know and love people there, and in five years from now, when the news and media have moved on, I want to be able to be there, helping with the long-term cleanup and rebuilding—the rebuilding of homes and the rebuilding of hearts and morales and shattered dreams, for these are the things that are not so easily remade. They require tenderness and patience and a long-term relationship. They cannot be mended by nailing down roofing and flooring or even by raising up a brand-new house. I want to be in this for the long haul, and in order to be whole and able to help later, I must stay off the front lines of medical relief work today.

Will I serve with other, non-medical relief efforts? Tearing up carpet in flooded homes and clearing debris and providing food to those who have been displaced? Yes, I hope so. This, I believe, is well within my capacity at the moment. Everything within my capacity I will gladly give - because my heart is for Houston.

© John Glaser

© John Glaser

©  John Glaser

© John Glaser

My friends Alex & Christine Nuñez welcome neighborhood boys into their home

My friends Alex & Christine Nuñez welcome neighborhood boys into their home

© John Glaser

© John Glaser

I am for Houston, and I am for the hope this disaster is bringing: hope that community will be reborn. I have witnessed it before, during tragedies and storms like Hurricane Ike, when the community pulls together and neighbors finally meet after living on the same street for years. All barriers and politics disappear, and only a concern for others' wellbeing remains. This is my heart for Houston: that we will learn a lesson from Harvey, that the unity will not fade, that old biases and divisions will not be rebuilt along with old buildings and roads; that pride—just like mine today—will die away, and hope and grace will prevail; that we will see each other not as projects to be saved, but as people whom we love. This perspective has the power to change more than the gulf coast and create bigger waves than any hurricane ever could.

Dear Houston, my heart reaches out to you. I'm not within your city limits anymore, but I'm for you, and I'm rooting for the change and the hope you are showcasing for the whole world today.

With love,
A Former Houstonian

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