September 22, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Today, we gather to share our collective concern and support for those suffering with mental health issues and for their families and friends. It’s a difficult topic to speak about and yet struggles with mental health affect many, many families. September is the month dedicated to raising awareness about suicide and suicide prevention and by extension raising awareness about mental illness. We know that Jesus was called to help heal those who were afflicted with what they called demons back in his day, but over the years we have come to understand that they were likely referring to various mental health struggles. The truth is that people often rally around those who are struggling with physical illness but those who struggle with mental health often feel that they must keep it a secret; they feel shame or embarrassment and so they, and their families suffer too often in silence. Let us pray, O Holy One of mercy and compassion, help us to be present to one another and to grow in understanding of mental illness as we seek to support those who are affected by it personally or through their love of someone who is suffering. Amen.
I still recall vividly a morning when I was in the 7th grade and we were all rushing to get ready for school. The phone rang sometime around 7 as my mother was getting our breakfast. She spoke only briefly and then hung up the phone and told a few of us nearby that our neighbor, Jimmy, had taken his life. My mother went in her room, got dressed and walked down the street to go sit with his heartbroken parents. To say we were stunned doesn’t even come close to describe our reaction as we tried to finish getting out the door for school. You see Jimmy was one of six kids who grew up down the block from us. I think he was a junior in high school at the time. We all knew him; we all knew his brothers and sisters. My brother and he had been friends for all their years growing up. It was a tragedy that we had no real understanding of. We grieved with all of them as we tried to grapple with the why’s. And, we watched how this affected that entire family over the many years since that time.
Over the years, I have had many friends and some in my extended family who have struggled with various forms of mental illness such as anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. I have seen how profoundly this has affected so many lives. I recall conversations with dear friends who had a parent who took their lives as we sat together and I tried to help them embrace an understanding that, despite what they may have been taught, I couldn’t imagine that their parent had gone to hell. Some of you may remember when that was pretty common thinking, when some churches wouldn’t allow a funeral or memorial in the church if the person had taken his or her life. Imagine how that magnified the grief of the poor family.
Some of us have likely suffered from mental health struggles personally or have struggled to accompany a friend or family member through the often-challenging journey of seeking treatment or support in a maize of limitations and few resources. For some, depression may come and go; I have a dear friend who has struggled with a treatment resistant form of depression who has tried just about everything over the years and still with little success. There can also be an anti-social component to mental illness such that a person may distance him or herself from those who might serve as supports.
In recent years, mental health struggles have become epidemic in our nation. Many speculate that it is connected to the increased worry and anxiety from current life at the same time that there has been a breakdown in communities with people feeling increasingly isolated or lonely. There has been an alarming increase in teen anxiety and depression, both likely in response to the realities teens deal with each and every day from worries about school shootings and terrorism as well as social media, online bullying and more. An article in March from the LA Times explained that mental health problems are on the rise among American teens and young adults, according to recent studies. “Between 2008 and 2017, suicides among young adults in age brackets between 18 and 25 grew by as much as 56%, and the rate at which these young people entertained thoughts of suicide rose by up to 68%. Suicide attempts rose 87% among 20- and 21-year-olds in that same period, and 108% among 22- and 23-year-olds.” These are deeply troubling statistics to read. Something is very wrong.
We know there has long been an increased risk of suicide in our vets returning from the warfront with PTSD. The VA reports that there are up to 20 suicides a day among both vets and active duty service members. In recent months, the NYC police dept has lost 9 members of its force to suicide.
Dr. Vicki K. Harvey, wrote in a piece entitled “Loving the Same Other,” “In churches, we speak often of welcoming the other. Often this is depicted as meaning people who don’t look or sound like us, racially or nationally, or who express themselves in the world in ways that may appear intrinsically different. It’s not always easy to connect with those who share different cultural traditions or beliefs; it’s so much easier to reach out to those who may look like us or are familiar somehow, but our faith invites us to reach out beyond the comfortable and to love those we may think of as ‘other.’ Perhaps our most significant struggle to love “the other” comes when we are in relationship with one who may look just like us on the outside but inside goes to places we can’t understand or follow. Individuals caught in the grip of mental illness are all around us. They are our friends, our co-workers, our family, our parishioners. They are beautiful in their gifts to us—their love, their talents, their wisdom, their play. And then they are not so lovely. They may turn needy, or angry, or withdrawn, or unreliable, or demanding, or ungrateful, or unendingly sad. And often, they awaken our own fears, for we are all only small degrees of separation from the same struggles.
In John’s Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus talked to his disciples about returning to God. He was going home to be with his Creator. The only thing He was leaving, the only thing that was going to fill the void of His absence, the only thing capable of such a task–was one command. He told them to love one another as just as He had loved them. That was it. The baton was passed. You’re it. Go.
There are many ways that families and churches have been trying to support one another and those who struggle with mental health concerns. In the United Church of Christ, there are now churches who have adopted the practices of what they call a WISE congregation which stands for (Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive and Engaged for Mental Health) In 2015, the UCC voted to encourage local churches to reach out to those in need. In the resolution, they stated that “Research shows that one in four Americans experience some form of mental illness in a given year, although the severity of the disorder can vary widely. One in 17 Americans lives with a serious and persistent mental illness.
Many people living with mental illness are shunned, feared and discriminated against. As a result, many people with these illnesses don’t seek treatment and they don’t share their stories with others. Consequently, they are not included in the network of care our congregations normally extend to a member who is ill. They struggle alone or with the help of a few close family members they trust to keep their illnesses secret.”
What are we to do? Perhaps you may be dealing with your own personal struggles or perhaps you are aware of those who are affected in some way. There are many who show amazing resilience and perseverance in seeking help. Some seek to share their stories without judgement; others just want someone to understand or be patient with them. We can seek more information and we can be of support to our friends who may be dealing with struggles in their own families. We can be a visible sign of God’s indwelling, of God outreaching out, through us, to those with mental illness. May we touch our own inner grace and open our soul’s window to the one who awaits its healing balm.