Some thoughts for January 25: Let's Talk (About Mental Illness) Day

I’m writing this on January 24. Tomorrow is “Let’s Talk (About Mental Illness)" Day across Canada. It’s sponsored by Bell. I know Bell is the mega-corp many of us love to hate. They can also be very generous. You may have seen the TV ads, featuring double-Olympian Clara Hughes, Sports Commentator Michael Landsberg, and comedian Howie Mandel. There’s a lot of helpful and encouraging information at

Clara Hughes and Michael Landsberg aren’t afraid to speak and write about living with mental illness. Landsberg had to step away from broadcasting for a while to deal with his depression. He and Clara Hughes have written best-selling memoirs and regularly speak at large gatherings. They advocate awareness, openness, compassion, and seeking help.

Comedian and game show host Howie Mandel also wrote a best-seller about his life experience with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Anyone who has seen him perform can diagnose the latter “disorder”. The very fact both conditions are called disorders adds to the stigma.

To the list of celebrities I am honoured to add my name. Throughout my adult life I have experienced periods of crippling depression, which took me away from my work and isolated me emotionally from my family. Each time I waited months before seeking help. I didn’t want anyone to know I was weak. I believed I had to be strong for everyone around me, even though I knew I couldn’t. Medication, talk therapy, and physical exercise saved my life.

A few years ago I was interviewed for an article about clergy mental health in the Presbyterian Record. That piece made some people angry. Such things shouldn’t be spoken of in church! Ministers who complain of illness just need more faith! Many more responses, in writing and in conversation, were positive. People were grateful a hidden truth had been brought to light.

When I’ve spoken about mental health in my former congregations, responses split the same way. There were always two or three people who took offense. And several very important conversations with grateful people. They were afraid to admit their own struggles to me, or to anyone else in the congregation. They didn’t feel safe in church. Some shared hard truth about their grown children, young men and women they feared were lost to them in depression or addiction. They didn’t mention their daughters and sons—most often sons—in church, either. At least we could talk.

Shame is a terrible thing. Too often the words we use without thinking—words like “crazy”, “loony”,“sicko”, “lazy”, “irresponsible”—inflict shame on people who hear and overhear us. People who are already embarrassed and afraid. Far too often people who sit in the shadows of depression, or rely on medication to get through each day, or visit friends and family members in psych wards, or have been hospitalized themselves, are ashamed of themselves.

Isolation is a terrible thing. A person living with depression can feel completely isolated in a crowded room. Often people with mental illness are convinced no one can understand them. They isolate themselves. Too often they experience isolation as people they hoped they could trust move away from them. They can still hear, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t help” as people walk away. “Stay away from her. We don’t know what she’ll do.” “He’s so down. It’s depressing to be near him.” “I tried to help and she didn’t have the courtesy to thank me.” Maybe you’ve heard these words. Maybe you’ve said them.

Acceptance is difficult. It’s much more than simple tolerance. When you love someone who seems to be beyond your help, it hurts. We often fear what we don’t understand, especially when it’s the expressed thoughts and actions of someone we know. We’re programmed to try to fix things in our families, among our friends, or at work. Neither you nor I can fix someone else’s mental illness. We can be part of a healing response. None of us can do it alone.

If you know someone who has a diagnosis and a prescription for in-patient care, but can’t get it, offer yourself as an advocate. If you’re close to someone who is hospitalized, and visiting is allowed, don’t be afraid to visit. The experience may be discouraging. You can deal with that. Remember the person you love is safe, and receiving help. Do some research. Find out what you can about your loved one’s illness, treatment, and future possibilities. You will be part of your family member or friend’s life after in-patient treatment. You can help ensure she or he gets appropriate out-patient support.

My experience is with depression, and the anxiety that often accompanies it. From my pastoral experience, I’ve concluded that depression is more common among church members than any of us wants to admit. The one-in-four statistic is as true in a congregation as it is in the wider community. One in four Canadians is, or has been, affected by mental illness in some way. There is some excellent information on ways to help, and a link, on this Let’s Talk web page.

Listening and talking go together. Listening, without judgment, when the depression, not the person, is speaking. Sitting in silence, just being present, is better than awkward conversation. Through the link above you’ll find some conversation tips. Don’t desert a person who already feels deserted. If you have to leave, say when you’ll be back. Don’t lose patience when what you’ve said seems to have been forgotten. Forgetfulness often goes with depression, and sometimes comes with the initial period of medication.

Talk can be medicine. Few persons suffering with depression have access to “talk therapy”. They are more likely to encounter practitioners who diagnose, medicate, and monitor. One way you can help, with the person’s permission, is to look into what benefits may be available through insurance, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or a counselling centre that works on a geared-to-income basis. Sometimes a family physician can refer a patient to a service that is covered by provincial health insurance. If you feel helpless and want to do something: learn, investigate, and advocate.

Talk can be medicine for those who love and care for people who live with mental illness. Finding someone you can share freely with. Someone who won’t judge you when you express frustration, anger, or fear. You need to let it out somewhere safe, with someone who will listen you through it, and then talk you forward. Try your best friend. Why not try your pastor?

The church is supposed to be a safe place for all people, regardless of acute or chronic illness. We work hard to make our buildings accessible for the physically challenged. What about the people whose challenges aren’t immediately visible? We can safely conclude that many of the people who were called demon possessed in Jesus’ time suffered some kind of physical or mental illness. Jesus had no less compassion on them than he had on those who couldn’t see, or hear, or walk, or stretch their hands out.

Let’s talk.


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