Thursday, June 4, 2015

Breaking Silence Around Mental Illness

I wore a hat in worship for the first time this past Sunday, May 31. It wasn’t the first time I’ve worn this hat in a professional capacity--two weeks earlier on Saturday night, I served as an emcee for the annual fundraiser for Metro Suburban NAMI, that’s our local chapter of the National Association for Mental Illness. I decided it was time to come out as a member of MyHAT, the Mental Health Awareness Team of Unity Temple. It was a fun evening to support the important mission of NAMI: building better lives for people in our community affected by mental illness. 

At Unity Temple, I didn’t wear my hat for the duration of the sermon, for I took it off in recognition of those who struggle with mental illness. Truly, I take my hat off to all those who know this struggle personally or of a loved one and yet find the courage to share with others and break the stigma and silence. 

Every time silence is broken around the stigma of mental illness, it is an opportunity for someone suffering in isolation to learn that they are not alone. And it reminds everyone that people with depression and other mental illness are always in our midst, most often without anyone else knowing, unless they self-identify. Similarly, when caregivers share their stories, it helps others feeling helpless how to help someone they love struggling with mental illness. I’m grateful to the leaders of our Mental Health Awareness Team that are committed to making Unity Temple a welcoming place for those who struggle with mental illness and their care providers. And we at MyHAT have the vision to create a community of acceptance and understanding, particularly regarding mental illness.

Every time I say the phrase “mental illness,” it sounds a little discordant to my ears. Something in me resists. It sounds loaded, as if its politically incorrect. But there isn’t any other phrase that acknowledges that a large segment of our population loses the capacity to respond to life’s challenges in a healthy way. Mental health isn’t simply feeling good and it certainly isn’t about avoiding pain, sorrow, or anger. It is instead being able to experience the wide range of emotional experience while retaining the ability to maintain fulfilling relationships, adapt to change, and cope with adversity. 

Mental health and physical health are not the same thing. They often are confused. And mental illness is far, far more common than most people realize. NAMI reports that 1 in 5 Americans currently struggle with some kind of mental illness, with anxiety disorders being the most common. That’s 20% or 44 million of us Americans. 

Kimberly Knake, the executive director of our local NAMI chapter, reminds me that mental illness does not discriminate. It can happen at any time, to anyone regardless of income level, race, or where you live. She also brought to my attention that one half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14 and three-quarters by the age of 24. Thus the importance of bringing awareness to both young people and their parents, so that those who are in need can get the help and not struggle in isolation or without diagnosis. 

Nearly three months ago, I agreed to dedicate a sermon in May to Mental Health Awareness Month. While I have known theoretically how important the work of MyHAT and NAMI are, it has become both more personal and clear to me why we must do so. A month ago, I got a call from one of my parishioners who had just discovered that her husband, who had long struggled with depression but was really good at hiding it, had killed himself. I spent that evening with her and her teenage children. Nearly two dozen of her friends and family showed up and just sat in shock and sought to console one another. 

Some of the people who took this thoughtful man’s death the hardest were his co-workers, in part because they were the least privy to his struggle with mental illness. At the memorial service, his co-worker who spoke called him “more than a mentor” and commented that he had made a tremendous difference in the lives and careers of dozens of people he supervised. He had other circles of friends: neighbors, musicians, parents raising children the same age as his own, all of whom were torn up about his death. So many knew him as generous, fun, with a wicked sense of humor. He was loved. And yet he struggled.

There is no question that our culture encourages people who struggle with depression to hide, to keep up a cheerful face to cover over what’s going on inside. Look at what we post on Facebook. We want everyone to see us as whole, engaged, happy people. Yet 20% of us struggle with mental illness--20% of us have such terrible feelings gnawing at us that impairs our capacity to maintain fulfilling relationships, adapt to change, and cope with adversity. And in our popular culture, who wants to admit that? 

If we are committed to being people of compassion, an essential part of this is attending to our inner lives--including the inner lives of people who struggle mightily. Communities of faith have a profound opportunity to be countercultural and provide safe spaces for people to share honestly and break the stigma and silence of mental illness. Our faith communities are places we can practice being loving people, learning what it means to be in relationship with people as they are, not what we want them to be. 

It is time for us as a wider to community to stop unwittingly distancing ourselves from people who struggle with mental illness, when it makes a real difference when the reality of mental illness is communicated thoughtfully. Kimberly Knake tells me of students who have reported giving up plans to take their lives when they NAMI has worked in the high schools. If the stigma and cultural silence wasn’t so acute, maybe, or perhaps likely many people wouldn’t suffer so much and several people would still be alive. Any suicide serves as a wake up call to the fact that our culture pushes so many people with depression to hide. 

My parishioner is not the only well-educated, married, church-going parent who has taken his life in our community. In the last 6 and a half months, two other beloved Oak Park residents also took their lives. A beloved school board member was 48, the same age as my parishioner, when he killed himself last February. And in late November a 50-year old active Catholic woman did so as well with three teenagers still living at home. 

I’ve come to learn that often suicide clusters are of teenagers in the same community. There’s a current cluster in North Carolina, and three years ago there was one here in the Chicago area in Lake Forest where three teenage boys all separately jumped in front of a train over a two month period. Here in Oak Park, right now, do we have a cluster of parents of teenagers?

What’s more, the incidence of suicide among middle-aged, married, church-going, parents living in upper-middle class neighborhoods is much, much lower than the national rate. And that is the demographic here. Yet clearly we in our community are not immune. Mental illness does not discriminate.

Our community struggles with mental health. Every community struggles with mental health. While my community prides itself on being open and accepting and affirming of all kinds of people, the stigma of mental illness contributes to the shame and secrecy and isolation of people--and the stigma contributes to the kind of suffering that exacerbates mental illness and even suicide. 

Suicide is more common than homicide. Here is a statistic that I can hardly believe: 65% of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides, and guns are used in 50% of suicides. That means for every person shot and killed in this country as a homicide, there are two other people who kill themselves with a gun. And two other people who use a different method. For all the money we spend on trying to prevent homicide, we should also consider how we can prevent suicide. And suicide is especially rampant among certain demographics like veterans. There is a military report that concludes that in 2012, an average of 22 United States veterans killed themselves each day. 

What can we do as members of our community? What creates a community of greater acceptance and understanding? First, the open acknowledgment that mental illness is very common and a willingness to break the silence to help lift the stigma. Second is how we live out our lives as individuals, committed to kindness, taking the opportunity to listen to others, to loving those close to us, affirming our commitment. Third, to support the work of community organizations like NAMI and creating mental health awareness and action teams within faith communities. And lastly seeking to discuss and understand about our inner lives and understanding how common mental illness is and how this can be especially challenging to some who struggle with mental illness.

When I sat down with my parishioner’s family to plan the memorial service, I appreciated their readiness that the service be honest, honest about his struggles as well as honest about the myriad of emotions that inevitably come forth in the wake of suicide, and while this beloved man never wanted to hurt anyone, especially his family, his final act left those who loved him deeply, deeply hurt. 

It is also important to emphasize that this lovely man was a human being like us, with his joys and successes and his hidden struggles and defeats. Here at Unity Temple, we believe that what defines a life ultimately is love shared--not one single act but the many, many moments of connection, of support, of becoming real. However, the reality of his untimely tragic death calls us to address the hidden suffering of people who struggle with mental illness and remain isolated.

As a member of the Mental Health Awareness Team, I put on a hat to lift up the important work for us to do in our community. And a big part of what we can do is lift up the question, what does it mean to live a good life? For when we get real and become aware just how much suffering there is among people with mental illness and the caregivers who want to help them, then it becomes clear the good life is about kindness. It is about sharing hope, creating spaces to listen, really listen. The good life is about creating a community of acceptance and understanding, finding ever more ways of embodying love, and having our lives be enriched by learning how to really love. 

Wherever you live, may you connect with others to help cultivate the beloved community. This is the essence of learning how to love with courage.

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