Sermon: Acting Those Who Struggle with Mental Illness into Wellbeing (6/12/16)

It’s an old story.  A person struggling with mental illness is excluded from the community, called demonic—that is, not of God.  When the person gets some relief for his illness, the community still wants nothing to do with him.  Yes, it’s an old story.

Or is it?  Even after all the progress that’s been made in psychology in recent years, on the whole we’re still trying to figure out how to respond to people who struggle with mental illness.  Too often, the church has been silent, or worse yet, has continued to act as though mental illness is, if not demonic, at least not of God.

I am heartened by the space this congregation creates for people to talk about their struggles with mental illness.  It all started many years ago when Jamie Durkee shared with us how she had found God in depression.  That testimony helped us to see that it’s okay to talk about mental illness.

Today, we’re going a little deeper to reflect on how we might act those who struggle with mental illness into wellbeing.  Last week, I suggested that our main task this summer isn’t so much to get to work acting all the groups we’ll be talking about into wellbeing.  If we try to do that, we’ll be burned out by August.  No, our number 1 job this summer is listening generously.  According to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, the goal of generous listening is simply to learn what is true for the other person, then to receive it and respect it.

Today, we’ll hear from some of our members about their experiences with mental illness.  Our task is to listen generously…to learn what is true for each person, to receive it, and to respect it.

Trudy’s story. 

Mental illness runs deep in my family.  What we affectionately call “the Grenon Crazy Gene” that actually comes from my paternal grandmother’s side of the family. Of her 8 children, 4 have diagnosed mental illnesses, and her oldest son, a 76-year-old Air Force veteran, retired professor of history, was recently killed by police during a standoff resulting from a severe mental crisis as a result of under-treated paranoid schizophrenia.  Mental illness is my family.

Kim sent me today’s bible reading.  I had a lot of feelings about this reading that all just came out. And I’d like to share them with you…

Fear. People fear mental illness and people with mental illness. People were afraid of the man with his demons and then they were afraid of Jesus after he healed the man of his demons. They did not understand it and they were afraid of all of it, the affliction and the process to healing.

That fear leads to a dehumanized view of people with mental illness (please notice my deliberate use of “people with mental illness” and not “mentally ill people” or “the mentally ill”. My choice of terminology allows the people I am talking about to retain their dignity first and foremost as a person, a person that happens to have a mental illness and it does not define their entire self by their illness). When we have a dehumanized view of people with mental illness, it is easier to write them off, “oh, she’s just an addict” or “that guy is a psycho” or “look at that crazy bum”. These people, like every one of us, are someone’s child…someone’s brother/sister, many times someone’s parent, uncle, cousin, etc. THEY ARE A CHILD OF GOD. And they are hurting. And our society denies that pain and suffering, allowing addicts to wallow in their self-medicating addiction, allowing folks with mental illness and little financial means to become homeless, allowing folks in mental illness crisis to escalate to the point of them facing eviction, cowering in their bathtub, clutching a kitchen knife tightly, fearing everything, and then getting killed by police when they try to run out and protect themselves from the danger that their illness is telling them they are facing.

All because we are afraid.

We need to stop being afraid and start looking with love at people with mental illness. When we hear of someone getting diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or diabetes, we don’t shun them. We don’t call them names. We shower them with love and cook them tasty casseroles and put them on our prayer lists. When someone gets a mental illness diagnosis, we [our society, not necessarily the members of our church] pull away. We give them the side eye when they act up in public. We get angry when they turn to illicit drugs to feel better and can’t understand “how anyone can choose to put a needle in their body.” We hurry by and look away when we see them sitting on the street, with all their belongings in a ratty backpack, their faces and hands dirty and worn from not bathing for weeks/months. We need to be more like Jesus and go toward them with love, not away from them with fear.  Just like us, they are children of God, and as their siblings in God, we need to act them in to well being, too.

Julia’s story. 

Good morning.  Pastor Kim asked me to tell you a little of my story, my families story, as we look at Acting the Mentally Ill Into Wellbeing.

Some mental illness is passed on directly in the genes, the DNA.  Some of it is passed from generation to generation through trauma left unhealed.  I met two of my great grandmothers.  I don’t know much about their stories, but their lives weren’t easy, and they left their marks on my two grandmothers.  Both grandmothers had traumatic childhoods and one also developed manic depression, what we now call bipolar disorder.  Both grandmothers spent their lives as active members of their church but I never heard of either one sharing their struggle with their church community.  None of their children had a diagnosed mental illness, but there was plenty of damage, unhealed in one generation, then passed on to the next.

The family legacy of mental illness mostly passed my mom and dad.  So they didn’t have a clue what to do with me.  I was aware of being depressed as young as 7, but I’m not sure when it started.  But my parents needed me to be a happy, healthy little girl.  Besides, little girls in the South in the 60’s didn’t get depressed.  It was only when I got old enough to act out that anyone tried to help me.  We were very active in church but it wasn’t somewhere I could share the darker parts of my life.

I met Chris, got married, had two little boys, and was finally ready to deal with my depression. Therapy helped, but it became obvious that more was needed. We had become active in a large Methodist church out here in the suburbs.    I was terrified that taking medications would ruin the relationship I had with God.  And I sure wasn’t going to tell anyone that I was taking anti-depressants. It took quite a while to convince a doctor that I needed help.  I had become very good at being a happy little girl.

But it was only when I finally got the help I needed that I was able to come into full relationship with God.  I was able to open up, to let myself be led by God.  I became a Stephens Minister, then a Stephens Leader.  I became active in the prison ministry, Kairos, along with my mother. I was active in early AIDS ministries.  I experienced such joy in reaching out to others, listening to their stories.  It fulfilled a great need within me.

When Chris and I first had children, I was determined not to let my boys grow up the way I had.  I didn’t know my mom loved me because I was so depressed.  So when first one son, then the other, starting experiencing trouble, I was lost.  I was in a world of pain.  But I wasn’t in denial.  Both boys were in counseling by the time they were in elementary school.  One son was depressed and suicidal but responded well to medications.  The other continued to have problems, until the day came when he had his first manic episode.  I immediately recognized it for what it was, and he was diagnosed and began treatment that same week.

The hard part was the next Sunday, sitting in church with a heavily medicated child draped across me, and I stood up in prayer time and let everyone, our whole church family, know what we were facing, and that we needed their support.  We all left church that day crying, and so many people came up to tell me about their own stories, their parents, spouses, children, all suffering from mental illness.  It was then that I became passionate about making mental illness and mental health something that was talked about in church.

We came here a few years later.  It took me awhile to become active here because leaving the last church had been so painful.  But Pastor Kim gave me the time and the space to heal, to renew my relationship with God.  And so it is my great passion in life to make this place, this family of God, a safe place to share all the troubles that come in life.  Some of our physical illness comes from mental illness – Granny with memory loss and dementia from early treatment, me with prediabetes due to the food addiction that started in my need to self-medicate, to my son who has kidney damage from the very drugs used to treat his mental illness.   I still get people taking me aside and telling me stories about their families struggles.  We are getting better about sharing all our troubles.  Here we can take ALL of our pain to God and to our church community and know that we are heard.

Donna’s story. 

I want to thank Pastor Kim and the congregation for giving me this opportunity to speak about mental illness.  When Pastor Kim told me how long I was allowed to speak, my first thought was, “Oh mercy, how will I ever be able to say much about mental illness in that amount of time?” After all, when I was in seminary in the 1970’s, I learned not to say anything in five words that I could say in twenty- five. Also, regarding the scripture reading this morning, I am uncomfortable with the words demon or demonic and hope, at least related to mental health, so hopefully, we can understand these two words as metaphors.


This shirt is one I picked up from a conference I went to last year sponsored by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) which was held Richmond, VA in May. The shirt says, “1 in Five” because that is how many children have a mental illness. Mental illness has many forms and sometimes it is difficult to diagnose. Some of the following illnesses may be familiar to you, however this is not an exhaustive list: ADD, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Sensory Integration Disorder, Bi-polar Illness, Autism (Spectrum), Depression, Schizo-Affective Disorder, Schizophrenia, and the list goes on. I believe that sometimes it is difficult to understand these illnesses because there is no outward physical sign. These are all difficult issues for families – there is usually a certain degree of grief once a family becomes aware that someone in their family has a mental illness. It is important for family members to have an opportunity to grieve what is lost to them upon diagnosis. There are many questions and concerns that get raised one of the biggest being, “will my child ever be able to live independently?”  Another – “What will be required of us to raise this child to live out her/his potential?” There is usually an expectation that children will be launched into a full adult life which is less dependent, and more interdependent, with the adults who are raising that child. This can change the plans and social needs of the adults who are raising a child whose future is so uncertain.


Mental illness knows no social, cultural, economic, educational, or religious bounds. It can strike anywhere to anyone, even families without prior history.


Somethings that are important to remember – it is important to say, “my child HAS a mental illness” rather than “my child is bipolar or depressed, or schizophrenic.” A person who has a mental illness, like all of us, is made up of a lot more than one individual characteristic. There are many complex parts to every human being.


My son, Palmer (show picture) – isn’t he beautiful? He is 13 years old and going into the 8th grade at Simpson Middle School. As an adoptive parent of two children, I can say that I was lucky enough to be at his birth. He was born healthy and beautiful; however, he had a great chance of developing bipolar illness given that one of his biological parents has bipolar disorder. He also inherited ADHD, dyslexia, and some sensory integration struggles. He has, although not inherited, ODD. He was a very easy baby and a wonderful, not terrible, two- year -old. However, about the time he was three years old, it was clear that we had gone from easy sailing to some rough waters. It was a bit surprising and also painful. This was a child who was talking in full sentences at 18-months old and showed every sign of advanced academic and physical development. And in fact, he is still able to read at the 99% despite having dyslexia and is very athletic. And when he is on the good side of his bipolar illness, he is an incredibly delightful, funny, kind, thoughtful, articulate boy who is nicely moving on to young adulthood.


Palmer has given me permission to share this story. When he was about 3 ½, he had gone into a terrible tantrum and was throwing things around his room and was in an intense rage. That evening when I was putting him to bed I asked him, “Where does my nice boy go sometimes, I really miss him.” He looked at me and said, “Well, I have a good brain and a bad brain and sometimes the bad brain tells the good brain what to do.” So I asked, “Do you think that you could recognize when that is going to happen and help the good brain tell the bad brain what to do?” “No, Mommy, I can’t because the bad brain is too powerful.” This was astonishing coming from a three- year- old and it caused me great grief and concern. He was officially diagnosed at about 8 years old. We have had some wonderful doctors and therapists to help us along the way and I was in a NAMI support group until a few months before we moved to GA.


Of course, Palmer has an IEP so that he can have the best help possible in school. He has a wonderful teacher in wonderful school, yet there is still a long way to go before teachers and other educators understand the best processes and protocols for helping students like Palmer succeed without excessive punishment.


What does a family who is struggling with a mental illness need? Support, care, patience, and a lack of judgment when someone acts out in public. Have you ever looked at a situation and wondered, “why can’t that parent get that child under control?” What that parent may need is understanding and some respite. Parents who have a child with a mental illness, must learn many new, and perhaps untried, ways of parenting which may not be understood by family and friends whose comments can be hurtful and show a lack of understanding.


There are many good books for learning about mental illness and two that I can recommend. One is called The Bipolar Teen by Miklowitz and George and the other one is I Am Not Sick and I Don’t Need Help by Xavier Amador.


There are gifts that come with mental illness – heightened perception, sensitivity and in some, even genius. Some famous people who have struggled with mental illness and have obviously been highly successful – Abraham Lincoln, Jane Pauley, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rosemary Clooney, Patrick Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Ludwig Von Beethoven, and many more.


Here is a piece of my son’s genius. When he was three years old he made up this song, “God made people, but people really do not understand God.” He is a very deep thinker and seems to know things that he has not necessarily been taught.


A number of us attended the book club meeting on Tuesday night in which we discussed the book Just Mercy. The book is well worth reading, although also difficult emotionally as it deals with people who are socially disadvantaged and may be struggling with a mental illness who are incarcerated. I want to leave you with 2 ½ short paragraphs from this book which I think address how we can love and care for those who struggle.


“Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.”


“We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”


“…simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight- only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”


Thank you.


Let us pray.  Holy One, we thank you for our sisters who have shared today.  We know it can’t have been easy.  Struggling with mental illness ourselves or with the effects of the illnesses of loved ones…There just aren’t that many places in our lives where we can talk honestly about these kinds of things.  We are grateful for this place, which is as safe as we know how to make it.  Thank you that here at Pilgrimage it is okay to talk about depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, and other diseases of the brain.  As we listen generously to each other and share together in our struggles with mental illness, as we seek to act each other into wellbeing, give us wisdom and insight into how we might act those who struggle with mental illness outside this community into wellbeing as well.  In the name of your son, who had profound compassion for all who suffer, we offer this prayer.  Amen.

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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