Hey there my long lost friends! Sorry for the late release of this blog, but life has been super busy these past few weeks. As most of you know, because I might have mentioned it a few (dozen or so) times, the last few weeks in our house have felt somewhat like a rollercoaster with emotional, financial, and even physical strains and challenges as we have worked really hard at getting two college freshmen settled in new environments. The boys and Ray have handled the process and moves and adjustments like pros, but me, well, I have frequently demonstrated less polish and gracefulness than I would have liked, and yes that means a large number of ugly cries at the most inopportune times!
This leads me to what is on my heart today on the subject of mental health. While I was studying at Heritage Christian University in Florence, Alabama, this past week, I had the opportunity to attend a Ladies Mental Health Program presented by HCU. This was a very beneficial program to attend, and we were privileged to hear from ladies sharing their own personal stories of mental health struggles as well as practitioners in the field of mental health. We were given valuable advice and information from both sides.
First, a panel of three ladies told their stories which included battling depression and a dangerous brain tumor, PTSD from a history of sexual abuse and cover up as a child, and chemical issues in the brain resulting in borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, numerous previous suicide attempts, cutting, as well as some difficulties with same sex attraction. These three ladies were so brave to sit before an audience of approximately 60 other ladies and share extremely personal information regarding their struggles. I really appreciated learning tips and advice from them, as well as from the panel of three practitioners who followed, also providing information about helping our friends and sisters who might suffer from mental health problems.
Some important information that I learned I thought I might pass along to you.
Helpful tips from the ladies struggling with mental health issues:
· Listen without judgment
· Sit with her in uncomfortable moments
· Be there for happy and for sad times
· Help your friend take first steps, even if sitting at ER with someone
· Show interest in learning more about the particular mental illness
· Set loving but clear boundaries
· Reach out and share your personal experience
· Validate your friend’s struggle; believe in them
Actions/statements that the mental illness survivors considered “not helpful” included the following:
· Statements such as “God will never give you more than you can handle”
· Statements suggesting the person’s struggle is not as bad as another person’s struggle
· Do not minimize the friend’s problem and tell her how to handle it
· Do not give advice such as “just take your medication correctly” or “if your relationship with God was better, you would not need all those pills”
· Do not assume same-sex attraction means no relationship with God
· Do not treat someone like a “project”
· For a person suffering miscarriage, “there was just probably something wrong with the baby anyway” or “it was God’s will”
The mental health struggling panel of ladies generally noted that they wished people realized how many people struggle with mental health, and that most people have trauma or have had it at some point in their lives. It was noted that it would be nice for others to understand that one can look great on the outside but be struggling on the inside. Generally, mental health is a lifelong issue, not a temporary one. Also, they expressed the desire for others to understand that a person is not defined by a mental health diagnosis.
Additionally, the panel of mental illness survivors noted some stereotypes that bother them most as including the following:
· People who cut themselves really just want to hurt others or are only attention seeking
· Talking about suicide will cause someone else to do it
· People with mental illness are fragile
· If you reach out for counseling, you are weak
· You must be fine if you look that way on the outside
The mental health survivors reported that helpful actions that they have taken include finding their purpose and reaching out to others to encourage and help them. Give support to others whether or not you received that same support. They suggested that we can write notes of gratitude to ourselves and reminders to self-care. One survivor stated that she reads certain passages from the Bible, noting specifically the soothing verse in Genesis 50:20 which states “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20). Other helpful activities were noted to include walking, talking with others, journaling, time spent with pets, and therapy.
After these three brave ladies shared their stories and advice, three local practitioners spoke to us about ways to care for ourselves in times of mental struggles, with the first thing being to tell someone you need help. Try to find a therapist with the understanding that everyone will not like the same therapist, if you are not satisfied, keep trying. They emphasized the importance of keeping track of your own symptoms in a journal even while you await a first appointment so that this can help your treatment and give your therapist information about your patterns, etc. Also, one therapist encouraged ladies feeling the need for mental health support to obtain a good health physical to confirm that the problem is not just hormonal.
Hold a space for your friends, they said, and meet them where they are. Cry with them, and help them to find counselors if needed. We should educate ourselves with information of the mental illness suffered by our friend. They emphasized the need that we set loving boundaries, and that we not enable unhealthy behavior so that it drains us as friends.
According to the licensed practitioners, a person threatening suicide should never be alone, and the National Suicide Hotline can be reached by simply dialing 988. This connects you to emergency mental health, so remember that number. We were encouraged to always assume a suicide threat is serious, despite whether the threat has been made before or not. If you live far away, there are always options for helping others including having local police do a wellness check.
As for these counselors, they all note that the weight of counseling can weigh a person down, especially if that person is not taking care of herself and her own issues. If you have not worked on your own past trauma, you might be triggered when trying to help someone else.
One of my favorite pieces of advice of the night was from a therapist who advised us to model Jesus. She noted that Jesus set boundaries with others and He knew that there were times that he needed to be with His Father. Also, I appreciated the statement that believing and teaching that mental illness can be prayed away creates STIGMA. When asked how these counselors felt that the Church could do better in relation to raising awareness of mental health, it was noted that we should be better informed about it before we start preaching about it. Ouch, but there is certainly truth in that. Advice was given about not shunning members who go forward with complaints of mental health and various traumas. It was noted that we should not expect Christians to be happy all of the time and we should recognize that the brain is a bodily organ just as the kidney is, thus requiring care and treatment at various times. Destigmatize this! You can pray AND go to therapy. We were advised to look for books and podcasts and websites to gain more education in mental health issues. We were encouraged to talk about these issues.
In the end, the practitioners emphasized that we need to know that God created man. He made us and He is the perfect Creator. And even at Creation when everything was new and perfect, God saw the need for us to have each other, stating that “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper comparable to him.” (Genesis 2:18). One counselor noted that this application is more than just showing the need for a husband/wife relationship, but more broadly, man’s need for one another, whether spouse, friend, or therapist. We need to be able to confide in at least one other person.
I am sorry if I have bored you with too much information, but I found this program full of valuable lessons and advice…Y’all our world is full of hurt and lonely people. We are all forced to deal with things at times and if you are not in a struggle right now, you may be just on the other side of one. It worries me for my friends and family and for my children. I strongly believe that we are to help each other in whatever way we can. I also believe we are placed in the lives of others and at certain times for reasons we may never know. The Bible offers strong support for us helping each other.
In II Corinthians 1:3-6, the following is stated: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation.
Thank you for your time and energy if you are still with me at this point! I challenge you to be on watch for struggling loved ones in your life. For friends, for family members, for church family. Let’s help ourselves by helping others and be as ready as possible for the storms of life.
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