IN A GIVEN YEAR, about one in five U.S. adults will experience mental illness of some kind. And though mental illness does not discriminate, African-American adults are more likely to experience serious mental health problems, but less likely to seek treatment, than white folks, due in part to the lasting effects of slavery, segregation, and other forms of race-based exclusion—effects that translate into socioeconomic factors such as poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse which are, in turn, risk factors for mental illness.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the factors that keep African Americans from receiving mental health services include a lack of health insurance, a distrust of the medical community, and conscious or unconscious bias among practitioners resulting in misdiagnoses. But NAMI also named another barrier to African-American mental health: the church. While one’s “spiritual leaders and faith community can provide support and reduce isolation,” explained NAMI, the church can also “be a source of distress and stigma.” The report noted that even when medical care is necessary, African Americans turn to their families, communities, and churches rather than turning to health-care professionals.
None of this comes as a surprise to Monica Coleman, a professor of constructive theology and African-American religions at Claremont School of Theology in Southern California. Throughout her new memoir, Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith, Coleman navigates the challenges of race, gender, and the church as she heals from rape (committed by her then-boyfriend in seminary) and wrestles with a faith that ebbs and flows like the cycles of severe depression that began as she entered adulthood.
Sojourners assistant editor Betsy Shirley spoke with Coleman about mental health, social justice, and how the church might become a place that more fully fosters both.
I’ve celebrated Easter before. My whole life I’ve dressed up, colored eggs, gone to church.
But this year was different. This year, I realized resurrection.
I’m not sure how the realization came.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I gardened. My mother once said, “Gardening is prayer.” I never believed her until I physically saw the transformation of dead earth into mustard greens and zucchini plants. I never realized how good the pulse of the sun felt on my back after months of gray. I never saw seeds push through the darkness of soil and become new life — until this year, when I realized resurrection.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve ever felt depression. This winter was the first time there were no windows in the tomb. The first time I held myself crying in the shower wondering if the emptiness would stop. This year was the first time I saw Lent as a season to sit in deep sadness. The first time I realized that Mary Magdalene sat at the tomb simply because she was just so sad.
Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve fully embraced a Christian community. The first time I’ve intimately walked through the liturgical season with the same people. The first time I shared the miracle of Christmas and the deep sadness of Lent in the eyes of other vulnerable humans. The first time I’ve attended an entire week of Holy Week services. The first time I sat in the dark on Good Friday after service ended and cried.
This year, I realized resurrection and I’m not exactly sure why.
1. At Least 10 Religious Groups Have Come Out Against Anti-LGBT 'Religious Liberty' Laws
"While substantial attention has been paid to the lawmakers, athletes, businesses, and celebrities who have challenged the new laws, less has been said about the steady flow of criticism from the exact group these RFRAs are ostensibly designed to protect: people of faith."
2. Stress and Hope in Tehran
On Thursday, the U.S. and Iran along with five world powers reached a preliminary deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear program and address sanctions imposed upon the country. The New York Times offers this glimpse into what those sanctions mean for ordinary Iranians.
3. Outcry Over RFRA Might Be a Fear of Christians
"The outcry isn’t about the law, it’s about us. It’s a fear that we will discriminate. And it is a fear based on a history that, whether we like it or not, is ours. We have, in no shortage of ways, broken relationships with the LGBTQ community. We have expelled our sons and daughters. We have protested them. We blamed them for the ills of society like a scapegoat. And no matter what we believe about same-sex marriage, that is wrong. Because of that, restoring relationship and trust with the LGBTQ community is on us."
4. Why I Won't Wear White on My Wedding Day
"As far as we have come, and as removed from these traditions’ origins as we may be, we are still attached to these remnants of a woman’s worth and identity being grounded in her sexual activity, importantly solely for the purposes of her pleasing a man."
Don’t check your watch. This is something else all together. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:
-the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;
-the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)
-the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?
Can we be as honest as the Bible?
When I began a Masters of Divinity program at Wesley Theological Seminary, I was convinced that my generalized anxiety would be a wrinkle I’d iron out as I became more competent in preaching and pastoral care. What I failed to recognize was that my aptitude for ministry in itself was not the issue. I already felt called to hospital chaplaincy and had had experience working with the sick and dying as a nursing assistant. However, despite all the practical knowledge I’ve continued to gain at Wesley, anxiety has remained a debilitating problem.
When my anxiety was at its worst this past spring, I often asked myself, what business do I have pursuing ordained ministry? How can I serve others if I can’t take care of myself? Last week, regarding the suicide of Robin Williams, I heard frequently: “How can someone so funny do that?” The best answer I’ve found is that even when we are in great pain and anguish, feeling isolated from others, we don’t stop doing what we do best. Even in times of depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, Williams never ceased to do what he did best — make people laugh when they most needed to. Likewise, despite my anxiety, no matter how I attempt to close out the world, I still feel called to the ministry of chaplaincy, to bring healing to others through my presence.
You know that time when the apostle Paul says “don’t worry about anything” I sometimes wonder if he could get away with that today.
For example: Did you know that Congress recently had an approval rating of 9 percent? To put that in perspective, 11 percent of citizens want the Unites States to be a Communist country . It’s a lower rate than people who would approve of polygamy! While this is sort of hilarious, it’s also pretty depressing.
Thank God (literally) there isn’t a poll on the approval rating of the church, but as a ministry leader in Seattle, trust me when I say that what makes the headlines is not what anyone would call good news. Throw into the mix the global unraveling we are witnessing in the Middle East, Iraq, and our own treatment of immigrants, and it’s sort of difficult to keep our collective chins up.
So yes, it might feel tough to log onto Facebook, or read the New York Times these days and feel like there is no reason to be anxious. Good thing for us the verse doesn’t end as a pejorative blanket statement. You know, the kind that so often feels like a cheap mandate to simply ignore reality? Instead, it names that that there lots for reasons for why we are surrounded by anxiety. But, in the eloquent paraphrase of the Philippians passage by Eugene Peterson, we are invited to:
“let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.”
I was among millions across the globe wrapped up in the glee of Pharrel William’s song, “Happy.” I first heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my family last year. As the credits rolled I remember making a mental note to add it to my workout playlist.
Pharrel even released a 24-hour video of the song on YouTube for millions to enjoy globally – creating a sort of time released happy capsule that was just a click away.
I thought about how this “Happy” anthem struck a chord in our world’s collective unconscious. “Could it be a sign that all of us, the human family, crave deeper joy and some levity?”
I think faith-based communities can discuss this for years to come at a time where joy is a necessity more than a luxury, and ministers are flaming out quicker than ever, and according to a New York Times article, suffer from depression “at rates higher than most Americans.”
Maintaining a sense of joy is then vital for my own work, especially since I lean toward New York-bred cynicism and incredulity. Activism can be rewarding, yet also extremely discouraging at times. Change can seem incremental at best, and the issues are much bigger than any one person or institution can handle. Making joy a vital ingredient in the active life of faith, within the soul of activity.
I’ve been considering three approaches in cultivating joy, a God-given, buoyant energy, in the midst of some weighty work.
It feels awkward and even a bit inappropriate to be talking about ‘celebrity news’ when so much is going on around the world: Iraq, refugees in Syria, children stranded at borders, Michael Brown’s death and Ferguson, Ebola, Ukraine, and the list tragically goes on.
But then again, it feels appropriate because it’s another reminder of the fragility of our humanity.
As has saturated the news, Robin Williams passed away this week. His life ended way too short at the young age of 63 – apparently because of suicide. While this was news to me, Robin had been struggling with intense depression – especially as of late — and was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.
To be honest, I don’t get caught up too much on celebrity happenings mainly because there’s not much genuine connection. I don’t really know them personally. Make sense? Robin Williams’ death – on the other hand – just felt like a painful punch in the gut. Perhaps, it’s because Mork and Mindy (Nano Nano) was the first TV show I watched (along with Buck Rodgers) after immigrating to the United States. I deeply resonated with Mork – this ‘alien’ or ‘foreigner’ from another land trying to fit in. Perhaps, it’s because so many of the characters he played in countless movies influenced me on some level as it did so many others.
Yesterday morning I was prepared to write about being a sacred place where others could come for healing, encouragement, and restoration. I had no idea Robin Williams committed suicide yesterday. I didn't hear the news because all evening I was sitting with a friend who is going through one of the most difficult times in her life. I also rushed out the door this morning with two friends on my heart who were also going through a great deal of suffering. It was late morning before I found out Robin Williams passed away. Robin Williams, the great comedian? The one who warmed my heart in Patch Adams. The man who challenged me, through Patch Adams, not to just be a professional, but a professional who cared for people.
I've read a lot of posts on Facebook about how we (those still living) never know what a person is going through on the inside. I've read that a person can be smiling on the outside, but hurting on the inside. While this is certainly true for some, I find many who are hurting tell us they are hurting. In their efforts to reach out, we often shut the door on them. Sure, the first time or two we listen and tell them we are going to pray for them, but then they become "needy." I don't know how many times Christians have warned me to stay away from a person because they are "needy" or "too clingy." I remember one time thinking, "Why wouldn't they be needy?" I thought this because we both (the commenter and I) knew the horrible situation our sister was in. I couldn't imagine the pain she was going through. However, this person believed our sister in Christ was being too "needy."
While I believe that we should never replace God by trying to be the Savior, I do believe we should be a place where those who are hurting can come.
That a “universally beloved” entertainer such as Robin Williams could commit suicide “speaks to the power of psychiatric illness,” mental health experts say.
Williams, who died Monday at age 63, had some of the risk factors for suicide: He was known to have bipolar disorder, depression, and drug abuse problems, said Julie Cerel, a psychologist and board chair of the American Association of Suicidology.
People who are severely depressed can’t see past their failures, even if they’ve been as successful as Williams.
“With depression, people just forget,” said Cerel, who is also an associate professor at the University of Kentucky. “They get so consumed by the depression and by the feelings of not being worthy that they forget all the wonderful things in their lives.”
They feel like a burden on their family and that the world would be better off without them.
“Having depression and being in a suicidal state twists reality. It doesn’t matter if someone has a wife or is well-loved,” Cerel said.
Williams was certainly beloved, as shown by the outpouring of grief and sympathy on social media outlets Tuesday night.
I log onto Facebook every day. It tells me that it’s OK to talk about a bad date, to engage in family arguments for all to see, or even to display how envied one believes him/herself to be via self-portraits from a bathroom mirror.
Let’s be honest. Social media has caused an eruption of platforms in which people across the globe feel comfortable laying it all out there. There is a certain acceptance of divulging personal information that my parents’ generation wouldn’t dare ever bring up in a private forum, much less a public one. This phenomenon raises the question: If it’s OK to talk about almost anything these days, why are important topics still being held captive in the land of anonymity?
Abortion. Incest. Rape. Bankruptcy. Depression. Mental illness.
And then there’s suicide.
So why write about it now? Because I fell into the trap of ignoring an important topic simply because it had never hit close to home. And then came the phone call.
If you have to reassure people that you’re not abandoning them, it may be because they feel you slipping away. In John 14, Jesus is responding to the anxiety of those he loves. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he says, but it is not clear how he will keep that promise. In a few hours, his arrest, trial, crucifixion and death will all have been accomplished. It will feel as if he has, in fact, abandoned them or been torn away from them.
Jesus loses his life, and he is not the only one to suffer loss. Those he leaves behind lose him, and without him, they lose whatever security they might have felt in the world. After his death, they take refuge by hiding. They are isolated from each other and afraid of everything on the other side of locked doors.
We rarely think of what happened to Jesus as an experience of combat, but the story of his arrest includes soldiers, weapons, and at least momentary hand-to-hand combat as Peter draws a sword to slice off the ear of one of those sent to arrest Jesus. Twenty-four hours later, those who could not watch with Jesus in the garden or save him from the enemy will themselves be lost without him.
Alexander was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
It's a children's story. I know. A no good, very bad day ... how do you prepare your kids for that kind of day where nothing seems to go right, where at every turn knobs break and we step in puddles and get gum stuck in our hair?
Maybe, we tell ourselves, that we can move to Australia and everything will be better.
Well, no. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days happen there, too. They happen everywhere. Everywhere. It's a great book.
So what do we do about them? The classic children's book doesn't answer the question for us. Not really. It's just a little bit of truth telling with fun illustrations. Some days are just terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.
But as we grow older, we learn that though these days do simply happen, that there are attitudes one can have, there are approaches to these days one can take.
Each year 90,000 parents in the U.S. confront the profound suffering that follows the death of a child or adolescent.
Some of those rely on faith to help them through their grief. Others look to psychiatrists, who offer therapy or prescribe antidepressants to help ease their patients’ pain.
On Saturday, in a move that could add to the tension between religion and science, the American Psychiatric Association changed a controversial diagnosis regarding how grief relates to mental health.
The change “will affect every single person in the country, because at some point we’re all going to be bereaved,” said Joanne Cacciatore, founder of the Center for Loss and Trauma in Phoenix and a professor of social work at Arizona State University.
At issue are questions as fundamental as how long we grieve, what clinical label we assign to sadness, and when grief transforms into mental illness.
The modification also rekindles long-standing debates about whether spirituality or medicine offers the best pathway out of bereavement.
The Rev. Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was getting ready to work in the yard in the fall of 2009 when the phone rang. His daughter was on the line.
Daddy, I love you, she said. Tell Mama and the girls I love them, too.
Then she was gone.
Melissa Page Strange, 32, took her own life just after hanging up the phone with her dad.
“I do not want you to imagine what that is like,” he said.
For years, Page did not share the painful details of Melissa’s death, fearing that some Christians might speak ill of her if they knew. Mental illness and suicide were taboo topics for many churches, seen as a kind of spiritual failure.
But that may be starting to change.
The day Franklin Graham was born, he received a telegram.
“Welcome to this sin-sick world,” the Western Union message said, “and to the challenge you have to walk in your daddy’s footsteps.”
It didn’t take long for Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, to realize that being a preacher’s kid would be both a blessing and a burden.
“I love my parents,” Graham said in a recent interview, “but there came a time where I couldn’t let my parents live my life.”
A new year evokes so many emotions in us. For some a wonder of potential opportunities. Others, the hope of change. Still others, the fear of uncertainty. In each case there lies a moment of suspense. A pause. And yet our resolutions are spoken, written and relayed far before the time has been taken to contemplate what we feel and how we feel.
This year my challenge is to start with the place of inaction and pause to consider what we in fact feel. To each of us we have to slow down after the Christmas season high of purchasing, giving, praying, lighting candles, waiting in Advent, and hoping for the Christ Child to know what kind of year we will encounter.
Resolve to be irresolute until the time of knowing appears.
Resolve to sit silent and listen.
Resolve to move slower until weary legs are refreshed.
Resolve to know loved ones as they are right now.
Resolve to build, to grow, to transform those parts that 2012 has damaged or left broken.
Across five states and 20 years, on the couch at the psychoanalyst’s, wadded Kleenex in my hands, and kneeling on the marble floor of the confessional, incense curling through my hair, I sorted through the jagged prisms of experience that, as a child, I did not understand: What it means to be in the constant presence of someone who does not look you in the eye, who lives beyond the bar of constant preoccupation.
I didn’t understand then the tiresome vigilance I’d develop as a result—the almost unconscious, constant mental sorting to see if, at that moment, I was OK, or if others were about to abandon me forever—a reaction I’ve heard is common among children of alcoholics, and which I’ve seen myself in the needy inner-city children I have taught.
Along the way, I discovered that the seed of my mother’s sadness had been there all along, from my earliest memory, well before my father died. And by the time I was a toddler, the seed had germinated in me, too.
As I lay on the kitchen floor -- my body rocking with sobs, my mouth telling my husband, "I hate my life" -- it never occurred to me to pick up the phone and call a friend.
To tell someone about the life I was living, in which over the last few years rug after rug kept getting pulled out from under me -- my parents divorced, my husband's business tanked, our debt rose, health issues loomed, and our marriage sagged under the weight of it all -- was not something I was wired to do.
In fact, I was mortified when my husband rounded the bend and saw me there, sprawled out on the tile, weeping. Crying and hurting is something I do best alone.