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Facilitating Mental Wellness

The following excerpts are from statements made by Christian mental health professionals during a recent panel discussion in New York City and with one–on–one interviews with SACONNECTS. They offer heartfelt testimonies and suggestions on how caregivers and their family members can survive as they find a path to wellness during these challenging times.

Speak purpose, be present

“Right before I gave my life to Christ, I was on the verge of committing suicide,” said Rev. Freddy Baez, a licensed clinical social worker for Full Circle Health and a college professor.

“But at the appointed time, my cousin knocked on my door. When I answered him, the first thing he said was, ‘God told me what you’re going to do and it’s not right in His sight.’ My cousin began to speak purpose and hope into my life. The amazing thing is, my cousin is developmentally delayed and has a mind of a child.

“Yes, God takes the foolish things to confound the wise. When my cousin said, ‘I’m going to pick you up tomorrow and take you to church,’ I closed the door, looked to the ceiling, and said, ‘I don’t know who You are or what You are, but You’ve got my attention!’

“My cousin became my ‘burning bush.’ I could not explain him away. If you had knocked on my door and said the same thing, you would’ve gotten a debate from me. But I knew him. I couldn’t explain how the mind of a child could speak to me about meaning and purpose.”

Things you can do

  • Be a presence. You don’t need to be a professional to be in the room with someone who is crying. Family members and friends who are survivors, what do you say to that person? What do you do? It’s simple. Just be in the room. You don’t have to say anything or come up with any words. You just need to sit there and be a presence. Take the pressure off yourself. The person may not want to speak to you. But your presence indicates to them that they are not alone. When people rail against God, let them. I have learned not to be God’s attorney. He is not going to say to them, “You’re not supposed to say that!”
  • Ask, “What do you think you need from me today?” You will be amazed at how that simple question will make people think. They may typically respond by saying, “Just be around until I need you.”
  • Overcome the dynamics of shame and secrets. Therapy is designed to lower the shame so that we can talk about the secrets. When you’re able to get into the secrets, there is healing.
  • Form a care team. Strategize to determine what kind of mental health programs are needed in your area. Hold a health fair and involve the community.

Ask, ‘How are you?’

“I’m a clergy person who has pastored churches along the way,” says Rev. Christopher L. Smith, LCAC, LMHC, LMFT, a licensed mental health counselor and family therapist in New York City and president and clinical director of Seeking Shalom in New York and the Bronx.

“But, let me tell you about something that happened before I was trained to be a therapist. I studied at a school in Wales and our school was based in a castle right off the coast. I had a quiet space to go down to spend time with God. I learned later that another student and I used the same space, but we never bumped into each other. Only God helped us to do that.

“One night, I was in a foul mood in my dorm room. Then, this voice inside of me said, ‘We need to go down to our quiet space.’ I have to be honest with you, my first response was, ‘Get lost, God. I just want to stay right here.’ But the voice would not go away.

“I went down to the quiet space, which was a balcony in the castle overlooking a cliff. There stood my classmate. Tears were just pouring out of her eyes. She was obviously in great distress. At the time, I thought I’d ask the best question, which was, ‘How are you?’

“As it turned out, she was ready to throw herself off the cliff.”

Things you can do

  • Do not be afraid to ask, “How are you doing?” or “What are you thinking?” Ask the question that will help the person get to the point where he or she sees the need to get help.
  • Know the difference between tattling on someone and seeking help for yourself. Having spoken with someone who is contemplating suicide, you need to speak to someone for yourself. That is a clear distinction from tattling when someone shares in confidence their personal desire to commit suicide.
  • Talk about the trauma. Doing so helps to take the power away from it. Suppressing trauma deepens it. So, with the help of a therapist, work through all the layers of trauma and unpack them before they erupt.
  • Set short–term and long–term goals. What will you do today? What will you do next week?

Be a beacon of hope

“Indeed, we have a hidden cultural and public health crisis in our community with respect to mental health and mental illness,” says Brett Scudder, president of the New York City Suicide Council and Suicide Institute in the Bronx. “I have seen four–year–old children show signs of anxiety, depression, and wanting to die. I’ve gone to church leaders who’ve tried to convince me that the problems are caused by  ‘demon posession’ and a lack of faith. If we can break down the stigma toward mental illness and barriers to mental health, we can truly help suffering people. We are seeing more cases of suicide and depression—even in our churches.

“Which pain do you think is worse, physical pain or mental pain? With physical pain, you know where the pain is coming from. With mental pain, your entire body hurts. I am a living example of physical pain. I have scars from my head to my toes; multiple times I could’ve died.

“However, the time that I attempted to kill myself was not because of physical pain. It was because I was going through grief that I couldn’t manage.”

Things you can do

  • Distinguish mental health from mental illness. Mental health is our ability to function with the ups and downs of everyday life. Mental illness is a completely different thing. We need to know the difference. If we fail to make the distinction, people will feel reluctant to discuss mental health issues. People will begin to “self–diagnose” and label themselves “bipolar,” “depressed.” This creates a stigma.
  • Find a way to intervene in the person’s life so you can be a beacon of hope that will help deter them from suicide. Do not focus on being afraid of them committing suicide. It is your job to be a beacon of hope.
  • Do not be ashamed of your child having a mental illness. Mental illness is not something to play with or to hide. Get them the help that they need.
  • Say, “I am here to help you.” People who suffer from suicidal thoughts are in a special kind of darkness. It is an experience that is different for every person. When they wake up in the darkness, they are at a loss as to what they should do. Be the light in that darkness.
  • Remember the critical times. The suicidal experience usually takes place between 11 o’clock at night and 5 o’clock in the morning when people feel most alone.

Focus on the need

“I have a daughter who is bipolar,” says Delia Farquharson, a licensed clinical social worker and city councilwoman in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. “It started in college. But she was able to complete her course work and graduate. She’s still going through it. It is painful for me to see her struggle. But at one point, I decided it really isn’t about what I am feeling. It is about what she needs.

“So then, I took the focus off myself, my sadness, and my heartbreak. I had to get over my disappointment and accept that she is not going to be and do what I had anticipated. Once I got over my disappointment, the question was, ‘How can I help my daughter be the best that she can be—even with her mental illness?’

“Now, my focus is on making sure she goes to the doctor, making sure she gets to her therapist, and making sure she takes her medication so she can manage the mood swings. So, when she gets angry, I know it is not about me. Her cursing has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the fact that my daughter is blessed with a mental illness and we need to support her through that with the therapy that exists. So, that is where I am. It was heartbreaking, but I am past that now. It is about her getting what she needs.”

Things you can do

  • Thank God for the miracle of medication. Some people can function fairly well without it. With others, if they miss a single dose, you can see the negative talk and psychosis creeping back in. In order to maintain balance, you must reconcile that this is something you need to do. You need to take medication. It’s not about what anybody else says.
  • Practice your faith in a way that supports your mental wellness and the wellness of others. Is it meditation, prayer, reading the Bible or all of the above? What does our faith tell us about how we should treat others who have been diagnosed with mental illness? These questions should be included in our conversations.

Take ‘a time out’

“I knew God was calling me to work with at–risk women,” says, Ann White, founder and executive director of Courage for Life, a ministry outreach designed to bring God’s word primarily to incarcerated women in the United States. “I’d be walking behind prison walls, hearing those doors clang, seeing the razor–wire above my head, but working with women just like me; women who are trying to mend their broken past.” White believes that prisons have become our mental health hospitals. “The majority, if not all of those inmates, have mental health issues,” she says.

“I come from a dysfunctional family, a broken childhood, emotional abuse, and some other abuses I went through during my earlier years, that really impacted my life. One day, I was vacationing with a church group in Israel with my oldest son. We were in Tiberius overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It should have been the happiest time of my life, but I was about to fall completely apart. That evening in my room, I was just devastated. I cried out to the Lord, ‘I just can’t do this anymore!’ No one knew what was going on in my internal being. I hit the floor and I said, ‘God, you’ve got to tell me what to do.’ At that moment, He said, ‘I want you to write down the reality of what’s going on in your life and take it to your pastor and his wife.’ I went through several drafts, and I handed them the truth of what was going on in my life. Had I not done that, I would not be where I am now. So, God brought me through a process of healing during the past 12–14 years. Today, I am a mother and a grandmother of 3, and a wife of 34 years.”

Things you can do

  • Get counseling from Christian psychologists who practice Christianity in their practice. You need someone who is able to combine the Word, prayer, and what God says foundationally with their psychology. Psychology alone can pull you away from God if you’re not careful and are focused too much on that.
  • Learn what your emotional triggers are that cause a fear or anger reaction that puts your mind into a chemically induced fog.
  • Learn to take a strategic 20–minute pause when you are triggered. Say, “Let’s come back to this (conversation) in about 20 minutes.” Go for a walk, meditate, listen to music, and then come back feeling better.

Be concerned, but not consumed

“I look at issues such as addictions and substances of misuse like alcohol and cocaine,” says, Rev. Donald Coombs, Ed.D., director of program development for the Adult Rehabilitation Centers Command for the Salvation Army’s USA Eastern Territory. He also addresses unhealthy relationships such as codependency. “Have I seen that be devastating with people in my life? Oh, yes.” Nonetheless, Coombs remains optimistic. “I’ve also seen people find tremendous freedom when they become abstinent.” In his private practice as a clinician, which is separate from his work for The Salvation Army, he’s helped many people with mental issues find freedom. He’s also helped save their caregivers from being consumed by the heavy emotional and practical responsibilities that come with struggling through a challenging situation. “It’s a real honor and privilege to walk through an individual’s journey of their relationship with somebody who has an unhealthy attachment,” says Coombs.

Things you can do

  • Get educated, professional feedback to better understand the personal dynamics that are happening between you and your loved one.
  • Learn how to be concerned, but not consumed by the relationship. Practice self–care, engage with a healthy church or corps, find a support group for yourself or engage in an activity or sport with friends.
  • Form a partnership with your loved one. Realize that at the foundation of mental health and safety is the survival of the caregiver as well as the person who is mentally challenged.
  • Dive into your personal relationship with God. See what God is doing in and through you and what He is doing through your loved one.

Finding a path to wellness is complicated and complex and can take years of searching. But with God, anything is possible if we remain faithful.

by Warren L. Maye