Breaking the silence of mental illness

By the Rev. Megan Snell

This winter I experienced suicidal depression. Over the course of several weeks, I went from functioning in my work and ministry to being unable to get out of bed or take care of myself.

This wasn’t my first time to be weighed down by crushing sadness and impulsive, racing thoughts. My bipolar depression had brought me to this valley of despair before. Despite my familiarity with the contours of this depression, it felt as dangerous and unknown as it could be.

My partner and two friends teamed up to keep a 24-hour watch on me, as I did battle in my mind. At times I needed their help, as I panicked and struggled to cling to reality. In those moments, they reminded me what was real: the sofa I sat on, the music playing, the dog next to me. Other times they held me as I cried. They made appointments with my mental health providers and drove me to those appointments. Each night, they counted out my medication on a grey plate. We would hold hands around the plate of pills and pray. When faced with the task of taking large dosages of new and changing psychiatric medications, my friends spoke words of life and hope into the experience. Their words infused the sterile and frightening experience with the grace and mystery that our shared Christian faith proclaims. As they prayed, we all recognized the interconnectedness of our minds and spirits.

Through their constant presence, my partner and friends reminded me of who I am, someone loved and valued, and reminded me that God was with me, too. There was no dark place that my mind could take me that God had not already been before me. Psalm 139 says that whether I ascend to the heavens or make my bed in Sheol, God is with me. This concept is radically comforting to those in the grips of depression. God is ever-present, no matter how far from sanity or stability our brains may take us. In the midst of severe depression, I find my faith in the good news that God accompanies me even in the valley of sadness and shadows.

This winter, as I fought for my life, against a depression that threatened to take it, people around me shared faith with me in life-saving ways. The church, as God’s called people, can also walk with people in the midst of mental health struggles. As important as it is to do the social justice work of advocating for broad access to mental health care, it is vital that the church do the relational ministry of drawing near to those who live with mental illness. We can start by de-stigmatizing mental illness from the pulpit, preaching and speaking about mental illness in direct and compassionate ways. When I speak frankly about depression from the pulpit, breaking the silence of mental illness, people respond with tearful gratitude for having their own life experience finally spoken about from the place of spiritual authority in our worship spaces.

The way mental illness is spoken of from the pulpit only takes a congregation so far. The work of destigmatizing mental illness relies on a culture change. We must become congregations in which people are welcome to be their whole selves. When we closet mental illness, we demand that so many people hide a part of who they are. Instead, when we become churches that are safe spaces, we invite people to explore the ways in which their minds and spirits are integrated. When we do the work of making our congregations welcoming to those with mental illness, we can live into a vision of the fullness of the body of Christ, accompanying all and excluding none.

An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Megan Snell ministers at the intersection of mental health and spirituality. She co-pastors Open Table Dinner Church, a justice-seeking, story-sharing community in Cambridge, Mass.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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