Seventh Sunday of Easter
Mental Health Sunday
May 16, 2021
I was in sixth grade that day when my grandmother came to school. She was there to help my brother and me pack our things and come to live with her and my granddad. We would also be transferring back to the school near them. This was not a new experience as we had lived with them off and on from the time my dad first became ill when we were very young and then again after his death until Mom remarried. What was new was that Mom would not be with us this time, because earlier that day she had been admitted to the hospital for severe depression. She would stay there for 3 months while receiving various treatments. This time we also had a baby brother, the child of Mom’s second marriage.
The crisis was not entirely unexpected. There had been signs of stress in the marriage and family, but I did not understand the implications. Though Mom was eventually well enough to be discharged, the marriage was unhealthy and she finally would file for divorce.
Mom’s hospitalization was not my first encounter with mental illness of a family member, but it was the beginning of what would be a long journey to where I am in my understanding of it and of the toll it takes on the individual and the family.
Then and in years to come, I wondered about what was being spoken in whispers. It seems some adult family members thought my brother and I would not have remembered that my dad’s death was an act of suicide. I did remember, I was in the house when it happened, and i wondered if their whispers suggested I bore some responsibility for his death even though I had been only four at the time..
Where is a child to go with questions when all about them is silence and fear for other family members? What do they make of questions like…What does your dad do for a living? How did he die? What was wrong with him? Why is your mother in the hospital? No wonder I worried if I too was flawed as such questions and condemnation of suicide as sin seem to suggest.
In years to come I worried my mother’s life might also end tragically, but it was several decades before a caring physician referred me for counseling. In the meantime, I experience firsthand the ways in which society and the church both cause and perpetuate the stigma associated with mental illness. And I was also the grateful beneficiary of loving support of teachers, church friends and their parents, community members, and even family members who cared in their own way despite the silencing.
We do not know entirely what is the cause of mental illness, likely some complex combination of physical illness, chemical imbalance, hormonal and environmental factors, personal and generational trauma, and genetics. But we do know that it is pervasive.
We know that a stigma associated with mental illness has developed from suggestions that people with mental illness were cursed, that they must have done something wrong to deserve their plight. Perhaps they and family have been told they would not be ill if only they tried harder, believed more.
We know that the already complicated lives of family members are made even more difficult by feelings they must protect their loved one, or by alternately feeling embarrassed, angry, and helpless. When families are most in need, too often there is no-one who will bring casseroles and tangible offers of help as they do when a physical illness strikes.
This month of May is dedicated Mental Health Awareness. And so we ask, What does this mean for us?
We read today about the love Jesus had for his followers, and we are reminded that compassion is key to living in community. We must learn the facts and reverse the bias. Seek out information made available by the National Alliance on Mental Illness NAMI and other organizations.
One in four adults experience some form of mental illness. One in twenty live with a serious mental health diagnosis. Children also are affected. A third to half of adults seeking help first experienced their illness as children.
Despite efforts to blame society’s troubles on them, only a few crimes 3-5% are committed by those with mental illness. They are instead more likely to be the victims of shame and bullying. They are more likely to turn the pain inward. One third of teenage deaths are caused by suicide. There is help, though not nearly enough mental health providers. There is a growing store of knowledge about the causes and effective treatment.
Finally, one of the things we know is that family, community, and environmental trauma especially during childhood are huge contributors in the development of mental health challenges. And this is a place we can all make a difference; in supporting parents in our families and those of our neighbors, in promoting programs and public policies that provide assistance to families in the form of child care, health care, equitable wages, safe and affordable housing.
We can make a difference by changing the perception that mental illness is a sign of weakness. take a look once again at our centering words for today. C. S Lewis says, Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
And when the one who is hurting learns to deny and hide their pain to protect others who fear talking about mental illness, he says, The more often [one] feels without acting, the less [one] will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less [they] will be able to feel. (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)
Let us together resolve to provide a place of safety where the hurt and can be seen and named. Let us facilitate healing, lifting up the stories of courageous individuals and families who have benefited from support. If you or someone you know and love is in need, please reach out to be a part of the healing process.
I am grateful for my parents gifts: my dad’s music and love of children and my mom’s determination. And I am among the fortunate ones, who received compassionate care. I was and am inspired, perhaps with a little bit of help from a stubborn determination, to commit to the hard work of seeking personal insight with skillful clinicians as guides, medicines as tools, and loving friends as companions. I have learned always to seek help when I am struggling. I have been guided by faith to choose hope and assurance of God’s presence and readiness to walk with us through our darkest days and our loneliest nights.
A hymn written and composed by American Baptist minister Robert Lowry and first published in 1868, and it speaks to this confidence I have:
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?