Breaking the Stigma: Mental Health Awareness   

Breaking the Stigma: Mental Health Awareness    May 19, 2024

Mental Health Month 

May is mental health month. I have been a mental health therapist, pastor or social worker for almost three decades. As a pastor, I have observed a lot of well-meaning people trying and talk about mental health, but often fall short. Often, stigmatizing language couched in toxic theology and general ignorance create alienation for people with mental health concerns. The intended audience for this post on the Spiritual Practice of You is church leaders specifically but also for anyone who has been hurt by well-meaning people trying to help them cope with their mental health concerns.  

Consider this Toolkit:  

Millions of people are affected by mental health issues each year. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI ): 

1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year 

1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year 

1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year 

50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24 

Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-14 

Language Matters  

The other day in session, I was reminded that people of the Christian faith hold onto two problematic ideas about mental health, if you pray hard enough it will go away or that it is all in your head.  

I am a trained as a behaviorist and as such, I treat each presentation in this manner. I find this to be a very comprehensive way of helping people deal with their mental health concerns. One of the first things I tell a client is their concern is treatable if we can establish a therapist/client relationship. Getting my clients to trust me is the first step in healing.  

As church people, we need to understand that it is okay to not be okay. Just because a person is dealing with depression or anxiety or struggling with an addiction does not mean that they are being tempted or tested. It also does not mean that “God won’t give your more than you can handle.” (I absolutely abhor this line).  

Here are some other suggestions from the site SAMSHA:

Instead of saying, “John is schizophrenic…or bipolar,” say “John is a person who has schizophrenia…or who has bipolar disorder.” 

Instead of describing someone as “suffering from a mental illness,” say “experiencing or living with a mental illness.” 

I want to hammer the first point a bit more. Instead of identifying your loved one as depressed, such as “Judy is depressed,” instead, offer that Judy is living with depression. Judy is far more than depressed. Judy may be a loving mother, teacher, artist, or beautiful contributor to your community.  

In a future post, I will show examples of how mental health is biblical.  

Shadow Self and Other Tools to Help with Mental Health 

I wrote a post a few posts back about a powerful tool I use with my clients: 

Now that I am a few years into my career, I have a deep tool belt of techniques that I can use to help clients. The standard of care for most clinicians is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps one become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking, so they view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.  

Caring for your Mental Health as a Spiritual Practice 

As a spiritual practice, one must first cultivate compassion towards oneself. We must begin to see ourselves as God sees us. We are God’s beloved, YOU are loved. Too often, I ask this question to my clients, “when was the last time you were told you were loved?” Often, I hear never or not in a long time.  

Compassion is a spiritual practice that enhances one’s ability to care for onself and others. It is important to understand that this can be a difficult practice especially if there is compound trauma or chronic mental health concerns. I find that teaching Lovingkindness meditation and what we call psychoeducation to be one of the best tools to help clients begin to unpack why they have low compassion towards themselves.  

Consider this insight from the Spiritually and Practice website by Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat  

The spiritual practice of compassion is often likened to opening the heart. First, allow yourself to feel the suffering in the world, including your own. Don’t turn away from pain; move toward it with caring. Go into situations where people are hurting. Identify with your neighbors in their distress. Then expand the circle of your compassion to include other creatures, nature, and the inanimate world. 

The Brussat’s offer that this practice increases our capacity to care. For me the key word is capacity. Therapy does not make anything magically better. Through the combination of talk therapy and sometimes medicine, we increase our capacity by eliminating emotional insecurity. That is all therapy does, creates a space to cultivate emotional security. This in turn helps one cultivate an improved sense of self.  

If you are member of a community of faith and your pastor or your faith orientation engages in some of the stigmas around mental health and you are beginning to want to explore how to break these stigmas, start with education. NAMI and SAMSHA as noted above among others such as Psychology Today and the Mayo Clinic are reliable sources. Generally, I would encourage people to stay away from sites that purport biblical references to mental health unless the author is both a pastor and a therapist (which I am), but always cross examine your research. Never is mental health a person’s fault or are they being tempted by the devil or are they sinners.  

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