mental illness: 3 sets of 3 things

compassion henri nouwen

* Note: I originally posted this in December of 2013 but am republishing it tonight as part of the October 2014 Synchroblog centered on Mental Illness awareness. October 5th through 11th is Mental Illness Awareness Week. I will put the link list at the bottom of the post once it comes out tomorrow.  It’s so important to talk about this issue together.  The inspiration behind the synchroblog was Sarah Lund’s new book–Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church. This is a topic near and dear to my heart and I am so glad so many people will be writing about it at the same time!


Mental illness. I want to be careful about writing about it because I don’t come from a place of personally knowing all the ins and outs of what it feels like. While I have a lot of struggles, the ongoing issues related to the biology and realities of mental illness are not part of my own personal story.  However, I know so many people who live with it in some shape or form.  There is a wide range of diagnoses, symptoms, and day-to-day realities; some are open about it, and share with safe community what it feels like, tastes like, is. Others might not talk about it openly but are working hard to make things work despite the obstacles. Many others are just worn out & tired because of it and sometimes want to throw in the towel.

Personally, I am pretty mad that so many people I know suffer with its realities & ravages.  And God’s healing sure doesn’t seem to look like some of the scenes we have seen in the Bible where things happen fast and miraculously.  In fact, intersecting with this much reality and pain when it comes to mental illness has made me re-think healing & miracles entirely.

I am no expert on mental illness, that’s for sure, so please know that anything I am sharing is just from what I keep learning a long the way in my little world and the not-so-popular Jesus school i am part of.  But there’s no question, the stigmas attached to it really suck and harm so many.

Here are 3 main reasons mental illness really pisses me off:

1. It tells people lies. It makes people believe they are too hard to be around, too much, too _________, that if people really knew their truth they wouldn’t be loved and accepted.

2. It tries to strip dignity.  The crazy-in-the-head feeling can make so many feel less-than, ashamed, and unworthy.

3.  It doesn’t have any easy solutions.  A pill won’t do it, although it might help.  Prayers won’t do it, although they will help.  A now-go-to-this-group won’t do it, although it usually offers some relief.   Its’ complications just don’t lead to easy answers.

There are also things I think it’s good for us as individuals, people who care, to consider about mental illness:

1. Unless we’ve walked in another man’s shoes, we shouldn’t judge.  I can’t say what it feels like. I just can’t.  And that automatically means that I am disqualified from judgment.

2.  Never assume. It’s so easy to see smiles and think someone’s “fine”  it’s easy to see darkness and assume someone’s worse than they are.  Our assumptions can really cause us to deny reality or make reality worse than it is.

3. Friends matter.  It’s a mean struggle, and the last thing that’s needed is more isolation & shame & harshness. At the same time, we are human and it can sometimes be hard to be a friend.

Lastly, especially in light of hearing of 2 recent suicides connected to friends of mine just this week, both somehow connected to “church”, I think there are a few things that the church should consider related to mental illness to better love and care for the hurting:

1. It is damaging to put pat answers on this complicated problem. Making mental illness a “sin issue” or creating an environment that is unsafe to share the truth of our struggles is really jacking with people. It leaves them with no choice but to split and try to manage their pain on their own (which never goes down well) or lose their community and jobs and reputations.

2. Get better educated.  Ask questions, get trained, meet with others who understand mental illness far more than you do, hear real stories, find ways for others to hear these stories.  Do whatever’s possible to get schooled in its realities and help others learn, too. While relief is not one simple change away,  lots of constructive things together make a difference.

3. Embrace the realities instead of run from them. Pain is a lot of work. It requires time and energy and love and care that often doesn’t have a big pay-off. But we have to trust that there’s something much bigger going on that has nothing to do with “results” or “wins” or “outcomes-the-way-we-want-them.”  It’s about love & presence & Jesus call to us to not run from the hard stuff.   It’s about our shared humanity, our we-all-have-our-own-pains-and-none-of-us-are-exempts.

Jesus welcomed pain.  And like a moth to a flame, people came for relief. At the same time, I am sure there were many others who were afraid to ask for help, afraid to cry out for the opportunity to touch his garment, who suffered alone while the crowds circled this strange, ordinary man who did extraordinary things.  Stigmas have crossed many generations, making honesty very difficult.

My hope is that as we bring this very real issue into the light, less people will suffer alone.

That we will not let our fear prevent us from engaging with its realities. 

That we will be people of courage and peace and hope and healing, in it for the long haul.

That we will fight for our friends.

That we will never give up.

That we will remind each other that who we are in our worst moment is not who we really are.

That we will create churches and communities that welcome pain and restore dignity instead of slam the door shut at the first sign of danger.

That we will respect that living in real life with each other will be beautiful & hazardous and will require more of us than we bargained for. 

That we will keep learning, keep trying, keep praying, keep loving, keep walking toward the light together.    

These 9 things are such a small start, but I wanted to acknowledge this today while it was fresh on my mind.  I’d love to hear what else you’d add.


other bloggers writing about this important topic this week:

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Wow… you’re really growing to really see this this is an issue… u stated who we are in our worst moments is not who we really are… what does that really mean? Does what happen in the past define who we really are how other s think of u? Its confusing where u are struggling with this issue… but then u really lose people they decide to really abandoned/reject u cause you’ve become unsafe which is the worst feeling ever. … I know for me when I thought someone who knew me really well or thought they Really had my best interest at heart turns out to betrays you… this sucks big time! Soo no its not easy to live with it but it doesn’t have to define who u are unless u let it which causes people leave u… I hate talking about it cause u end up with labels…

  • Mental illness can be so difficult, both for those who walk in it and for those around them. For those of us who are not experts, we can still walk with those who suffer, when they allow us to do so.

    I have a relative who is one of those who refuses help from everyone. She wants one thing from people – money. Since that usually doesn’t work out, she digs her self deeper and deeper into trouble. She spends her life looking for people who think they can help her, but when they won’t give her any (more) money, she moves on. She disappeared several months ago.

  • From my own experience, I have learned that it’s hard when people know you are depressed. Often your ideas, your opinions and even your very life is discounted… Anything people don’t like that you say, do or ask for is often dismissed because they assume you don’t know what’s best for yourself. People want you to get over it so they don’t have to deal with you.

    Thank you for posting this. It really seems like a whole lot of Christians don’t want to be bothered.

    My family and I walked past a man as we were going into church on Sunday. We have a lot of “unfamiliar” people hang out at our side door, smoking a cigarette or having a cup of coffee, waiting for our “community kitchen” meal to be served. Sometimes they don’t feel very comfortable being inside. Most of the time, they are too uncomfortable to come into our sanctuary for our church service.

    The man I saw yesterday had eyes that were red. In fact he was rubbing on his eyes and the skin all around them was red from the cold — I assume, from crying. My husband and granddaughter walked ahead, saying nothing (like a lot of our church members). I asked the fellow if he was OK. He murmured, “Yeah”. I needed to get inside to care for my granddaughter, but I said, “I hope you have a Christmas that is better than it seems right now”, and went on my way. Just before I entered, I heard him say, “I hope you have a Merry Christmas, too.”

    I hope I did enough… but many did or said nothing… I’m sure at some point he went on inside to be warmed and fed.

    And our church can “brag” about feeding the hungry…

    I hope Jesus came along… His followers were just too busy.

    • thanks, linda. i am always reminded of what a little kindness does in such a harsh dignity-stripping world. peace to you from across the miles. glad you are here.

  • Oh this is so pretty. As a mental health professional, as well as a fellow struggler, it is really hard to combat the arguments surrounding God/faith and anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medication. It makes me want to scream, because I know without a shadow of a doubt, my own need for chemical restoration.Owning my own clinical depression and PTSD has been a paradox, imagine that, in despair and glory.
    The lies point stuck out to me, because the voice of it being a gift of me disappearing has been a loud hiss over the recent years. The smoke monster has almost won, and while that is hard to say, it propels me towards compassion for others in pain, Knowing the reality of how very very dark it gets can help in the validity of describing how bright it can be on the other side, too.

    • God bless you in your pain and in your compassion for others. I understand — at least to the degree that I am able.

  • Thank you, Kathy for this post. Hmm….the thing that stuck out to me was the concept of making mental illness a “sin issue”. I have encountered this a lot in my life – from when I was small to just a couple of years ago.

    One of the things that stikes me about it is that, like so many things within the institutional church system, it drives people to pretend. When you said that it gives people “no choice but to split,” my first thought was not “to leave” but rather to split their minds – that is, separate the truth (i.e., abuse and fallout thereof, for me included attendant PTSD & depression) from what is taught is required to be accepted. It forces compartmentalization of the damage. But, when sealed off like that with no air or light, it does what all infections do in that state… festers.

    Abuse causes mental wounds. Wounds need dressing, cleaning, airing out to heal. If they are not given this treatment, they become infected. I think there are a lot of people with infections trying to live within the confines of the institutional church expectations. God help us all. Seriously.

    • Very well put Jeanette,

      There is a culture is there not of putting on the “perfect Christian mask”. I recall having a conversation with a friend in that she wouldn’t dare be vulnerable in church for that reason. It seems to me is that sharing often risks being judged or seen as “ministry fodder” with some quick fix prayer, advice or piece of scripture when what is needed is a compassionate friend.

      What I have learned to do generally in church is not dissimilar in order to find acceptance and comparmentalisation. What I now do is be more guarded and keep my tongue reigned in on certain things generally and seek out friendships where it is healthy to share. Not everybody wants to be the kind of friend that is needed or is capable of being that kind of friend. I think we need to be accepting of that reality however unfair it may seem.

      I empathise with what you put in your last paragraph. I agree that there are a lot of issues that go unaddressed because of expectations in church cultures – keeping up appearances if you like. The white elephant in the room that on noone likes to talk about seems to be “defend the system at all costs”.

      After years of frustration about this, I have found that accepting this is the way things are, however sad it is, and the limitations of what I can do to change that and seeking out friends and opportunities both in church and outside where there can be freedom, creativity, shared interests etc and leaving the demons to dwell or not share pearls where they are not appreciated so to speak it working for me and is more healthy.

      I hope you find your involvement in the church you go in a way that you can thrive with respect to the things we have discussed here. God Bless.

      • Adam, hi.
        After growing up in a religiously dysfunctional environment accompanied with mental, physical and sexual abuse, I am past the point of being sad. I am just done.

        I am still sad. There are so many hurting people and so many pew sitters swallowing lies….but for me, church is no longer something I seek to belong to in the traditional sense.

        As a believer, I am automatically a part of the church, but institutional membership and attendance? No thanks. I have not found one where I live that is not just like what I grew up in….

        • Hey Jeanette,

          I am sorry to hear about the difficulties you have experienced. It’s brave of you to share how you have been mistreated, thank you.

          Kathy knows that I went through something not dissimilar to you last year with being “done” with church. I won’t go into the details. But what happened was that i sought the counsel of others. I put “church wounded” into a search in Google and found Kathy and Phyllis’ class. I’d recommend it if there is one coming up.

          What I also did was seek counsel of mature Christians who know me well. One saying that I am creative and a performer and many find that threatening because they are comfortable with systems. So when I come along thinking “out of the box” its not something they deal with well. Another saying I would find belonging in creative environments.

          So what I am looking to do is build on what I already have been doing with stand up comedy with another workshop on that next month. I find I thrive in that environment with other creative people.

          Someone also spoke prophetically to me and said I had closed the door on church and whether I accepted it or not there was a place for me there where there is good. I’ve found a church with a great leader and I’ve learned to be more autonomous than in previous churches, avoiding church politics, choosing friends more carefully etc. And that is working for me now. I look forward to going to church now where last year the last thing I wanted to do was to step over the threshold of a church.

          I also got into meditation. The Christian meditation group I go to on a Wednesday and church on a Sunday are the two anchors to my week.

          It also helps me to know that Jesus was mistreated by his own people, the attempt on his life after preaching in the synagogue, and constant plotting for his death after turning the tables over in the temple. It seems to me that sometimes the hardest places to be like Christ in character is in religious institutions!

          Thanks for talking – hang in there, there is hope and it often comes in surprising ways! Don’t focus on the immediacy of your circumstances but keep heavenly focused. God is close to the broken hearted!

      • Thanks, Kathy. I see things so much differently this side of the ‘shattering’….. 😉

  • I’m not a professional, by any means. But I have stood on the edge of the cliff of suicide. I have been in the darkest of caves of my own making. I have also spent time with friends, entering into their pain and sitting with them in the dark, the damp, the cold. My advice? By all means, show up … but then shut up … and listen … and love.

    And if their anxiety screams “WTF ARE YOU DOING HERE?”, get up and back away … giving them space. But never, never, ever turn and walk away.

    And when, and if, they desire to stand, offer a hand. And when, and if, they make the journey back out into the light, rejoice with them, for the Lord and His angels have prepared a meal for the journey ahead.

    When Elijah was in his cave, the Lord did not point a finger from outside asking, :What are you doing in THERE, Elijah?” No. He said, “What are you doing in HERE?”

    God was right there beside him, cobwebs, muck, spiders and all. Amen?

      • The show-up-and-shut-up mantra is the hardest for me. I have some street cred. When I stood on the edge of that cliff I had enough cyanide on me to kill a small village. There was not going to be an “attempted” suicide in the papers the next morning.

        I struggle with wanting to take ownership of a friend’s depression and to fix it … even though I know that is the LAST thing I would have wanted in my darkest hours. I just wanted someone to listen … to hear my voice … and to love me.

        • Sometimes in my dark hours, I get the feeling that people want to “fix it” because they’re tired of me and my problems…

          • There is a lot of truth in that. I hear you. It’s tough to be open and vulnerable with those people, isn’t it? I have a question for you. How does pity, sympathy, and empathy feel different for you? What would be the ideal? How would you want a true friend to interact with you in your darkest hours?

  • Spot on, Kathy. Thanks for shining the light, gives me hope to know others recognize the hard, seemingly never-ending work of reaching out to those in pain. You are so right, not easy, and it has stood my understanding of miracles on its ear. I have a loved one I have ranted and railed to God over. I really do think churches do a sucky job of reaching out to those dealing with this, and are, in general, in a rush to put a quick label on it and move on. Doesn’t help those in the trenches much. I just try to block out the church stuff and draw on the compassion and love Jesus tried to teach us. Thanks for writing this.

  • I love the Nouwen quote….one of my writers. Thank you for helping to educate about mental illness!

  • I suffer from mental illness and i been labeled by others and family, many people look as mental illness as a disease that they will catch if they hang out with you, In the last year i have had experience three suicides all of them had a special place in my heart. I hear people say suicide is a selfish act but to me it’s not, i have been there many times, the pain, isolation, feeling desperate, and many other things start this horrible circle of depression, then not seeing hope, missing someone you love so much you can be without them and many other things that happen in our lives makes us feel the need to give up, some of us get the help, good treatment, family support and many other things to help us but not all the time is this enough, we don’t know what is going through a person mind, or lives. I know that living with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, there a lot of days i want to throw in the towel but with my friends and other good support i making it. I have been made fun of, called names by others. I know unless you walk in that person’s shoes you have no right to judge, we don’t know what is going on. Everyone needs to be more educated about mental illness and how to learn to deal and the best way to approach theses illness that a lot of us don’t pay attention to the cries of help, our we walk away instead of reaching out. Mental illness is not a disease that people will catch, we carry on jobs, go to school then maybe something change that has contributed to our illness.

  • My mom use to always tell me that since I was 5 they had mental health professionals come into our home because there was always something ‘not right’ with me. I struggled through drug/alcohol addiction (remembering at 41 that my father was molesting me from 3~13) and survived multiply rapes before entire treatment for my alcohol/drug problems…I with 19 years of sobriety and night terrors started remembering what my dad had done; sought to receive SSI (Supplemental Social Security Income) and with that I had to seek mental health and get diagnosed in order to prove I “wasn’t normal”. I received a diagnosis that changed my life. 40+ years struggling trying to fit into my family, into society into life never, ever having the tools to even know how not to get rageful….until I went to a year long therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy; twice a week for a whole year and it changed my life. It changed my life because I was given life skills that the molester and the runner couldn’t/wouldn’t provide me. I was made out to be the scapegoat in my family and that is the way it was. I knew that I knew that I knew that I was a piece of shit; unworthy from my depths of any positive love or attention…this therapy helped me start realizing that wasn’t the truth. Flash forward to today and I have been a fully self supporting woman now for 7 years (spent 24 years of my life on the street; what a life) I have a home on the ocean where I have always wanted to live; most importantly I have the love of My Creator that goes deep into my soul. He was the one that went with me to rescue the little girl(me) that was in the attic sobbing scared to death; God & I got a good thing going…sure sometimes it bothers me when society or groups of people decide that I am not “normal” it does bother me…and then I remember what my life and my head were like even five years ago and peace washes over me like a beautiful river…I can only compare me to me.
    I am not going to apologize for taking up so much space here although my brain likes to tell me I need too. Thank you for reading and listening. I know a lot of people who haven’t survived what I got and I am blessed; no better no worse today than any other human being. I am a totally thriver and for that I am abundantly grateful.
    Love & Grace.

    • PS. because of the love of My Creator…I have a relationship with the molester and the runner. They are my parents and I call them mom and dad. We talk once a week and I love them because you see, I have an experiential kind of relationship with My Creator…he loved me through my depths…I need to do that for others…even if the others have betrayed me beyond belief and have wounded me so horribly…if God can love me in my ugly I have to love others…not for brownie buttons or a ticket to heaven via the fast track but because I am love; and that is what love loves.


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