Let us pray. “God of the empty tomb and the Emmaus road, awaken us and open our lives to your presence. We long to step fully into new life and to recognize you in all whom we meet….We come before you ready to leave behind darkness and emptiness, willing to have our eyes opened to seeing you in the faces around us. Meet us here as we worship you [and reflect on your Word] that we may experience [anew] the transforming power of Easter. Amen.” (Rachael Keefe)
Our scripture reading this morning tells us that “From one ancestor,” or “From one blood,” God “made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God[the Lord] and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”
That is what I want you to remember above all this morning: that God “is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’… ‘For we too are [God’s] offspring.” No matter how you may feel at any given moment, always remember this fact, this truth: God is not far from you, for, apart from God being with you, you wouldn’t even exist. You ARE God’s offspring, God’s child, God’s beloved.
No matter how you may feel, this is a fact, and, as such, is always true: God is never far from you, for in him, you “live and move and have [your very] being.” You ARE God’s offspring.
No matter how you may feel at any given time in your life, or even this morning, remember this. It is important.
It is also important that you know that at least one out of every four people does not always feel that way. They don’t always feel that God is close. They don’t always feel that God loves them. They don’t always feel valued or valuable. And it is not because of lack of faith.
We have designated today as “Mental Health Awareness Sunday.” There are several reasons for observing it today.
One reason is that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Sixty-five years ago Mental Health America designated May as Mental Health Month “to raise awareness about mental illnesses and the importance of mental wellness for all.”
In keeping with that, the Mental Health Network of the United Church of Christ – Did you know that the United Church of Christ has a Mental Health Network? – asked UCC churches to observe Mental Health Awareness Sunday on May 18 – or any Sunday in May, or, really, any Sunday of the year, as long as they observe it sometime.
“We see Mental Health Sunday as a way for congregations to begin to chip away at the stigma that surrounds mental illness,” said Rev. Alan Johnson, chair of the UCC Mental Health Network. “When we widen our welcome and support to members with mental health challenges, we follow the example of Jesus who showed us how to embrace those who are marginalized by society. And by including these members in the life and work of our churches, we are all enriched.”
Since last Sunday was Children’s Sunday here – and I’m sorry I missed it – and since this is the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, when we remember our military, our deceased, and our veterans in a special way, Rev. Megan and I thought this would be an appropriate Sunday to observe Mental Health Awareness Sunday. After all, are you aware of how many of our veterans struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or the repercussions of traumatic brain injury after being in conflict situations around the world? Are you aware that suicide is a great problem, a great temptation, and a high statistic for veterans who have come back from conflict overseas?
In honor of May as Mental Health Month; in honor of the struggles of our military with traumatic brain injuries and with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; in honor of the struggles of our civilian as well as military population with mental health, or brain, disorders; and in honor of Jesus Christ, who calls us to reach out to and embrace those who are struggling, those who may be, or feel like they are, on the margins of society or even on the margins of God’s love, today we are observing Mental Health Awareness Sunday.
Remember this fact, no matter how you feel, what you fear, what you may sometimes think, or how you or someone you love may struggle: God is never far from you, for in him, you “live and move and have [your very] being.” You ARE God’s offspring, God’s child, God’s beloved. Remember that. It is vitally important.
Now, some statistics: According to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School, 26% of adults in the United States have an anxiety, mood, impulse control, or substance disorder in a given year. That’s one in four adults in the United States. 22% of those disorders were classified as serious; 37% were classified as moderate; and 40% were classified as mild.
Imagine that one out of every four people in this room were asked to stand. Imagine then that every person standing had some form or degree of mental health problem or disorder. Some would experience mild symptoms and problems. Some would experience moderate symptoms and problems. And some would experience severe problems. I would be one of the ones standing. Would you be, or someone you know or love, maybe someone in your own family?
One question to ask may indeed be, “How many families in your church have a loved one who struggles with a serious, acute or chronic mental health issue?” The answer would be one in four, if the congregation is representative of the population of the United States. “Look at the faces seated around you this morning,” one caring person suggests. “Someone is probably hurting and they’re afraid to tell you.”
In one church, on Mental Health Awareness Sunday, the pastor talked about her experience with profound post-partum depression. The church’s religious education coordinator, normally shy and soft-spoken, told about her years-long struggle with anorexia and her subsequent involuntary admission to a locked psychiatric ward where no pens, drawstrings, or diet coke were allowed. “If you ever want to hit the dirt-floor bottom of your soul,” she said, “try ending up somewhere where it’s considered risky to have a ballpoint pen.”
The congregation was spellbound as she talked. Part of the reason her testimony was so powerful, perhaps, is that this person had been raised in a stable Protestant home. “She could easily be one of our kids,” one listener said.
At another church, a woman told of her journey with depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and anxiety. She talked about her struggle with the stigma that surrounded those disorders and about living off by herself alone to try to deal with those struggles helpfully – for her. Others might not choose that route, but that is what worked for her.
I myself have struggled with recurrent major, or severe, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, some degree of anxiety disorder, chronic severe insomnia, and Attention Deficit Disorder. I have been, and continue to be, treated for these conditions, and right now am doing very well, except with the insomnia; but that is not always the case.
I have also worked in the mental health field. For five years when I was last living in western Massachusetts, I worked for ServiceNet with some of their clients who struggle with severe and persistent mental illness: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and the like. One thing I found in working with that population is that every single one of those people was and is a person first. Each one had, and has, strengths and gifts and interests and needs just like everybody else. So, they are people like you and me first. Secondarily, they are people with severe and persistent mental illnesses.
One thing to know is that mental illness is illness. It is a medical condition. It is a disorder of the brain. It has to do with the way the brain works, with the chemical balance or imbalance in the brain, and with the structure of the brain itself. It is important to know that mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression or other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or compulsive disorders, are not caused by lack of faith, inadequate prayer, unconfessed sin, moral lack, or personal failure. They are quite simply medical conditions and can be treated as such.
That’s where the hope lies – and where the tragedy lies as well. “Treatment works and recovery is possible.” I am living proof of that. However, statistics show that only about 60 percent of adults and almost one-half of youth ages 8 to 15 with a mental illness received no mental health services in the previous year. Sixty percent of adults and fifty percent of youth, at a very vulnerable age, received no mental health services in the previous year.
And why is that? It is partly because of stigma: negative reactions other people have when they find out that someone has a difficult or troublesome mental health condition. Think about it: What was your first reaction when I told you that I struggle with some mental health issues? Was it, “Don’t talk about that”? “Why are you saying that out loud?” “I don’t want to hear you anymore.” Or, was your first reaction compassion? Maybe even interest in learning more?
Stigma is real. We don’t like to hear or talk about mental illness or other mental health problems.
There is currently no real stigma involved if you say you have diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Those are known medical conditions that can affect just about anybody. There are medical treatments for those conditions. Even if those medical treatments don’t produce a cure, they can make living with those conditions more manageable.
The same is true with mental illness. There are medical treatments for those conditions. The right medication can be a Godsend. Appropriate counseling can be a Godsend; and there are some very Christian, godly, and caring professionals working in the mental health field.
As I said, it is important to know that mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression or other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or compulsive disorders, are not caused by lack of faith, inadequate prayer, unconfessed sin, moral lack, or personal failure or weakness. They are quite simply medical conditions and can be treated as such.
Those of you who read the “Upper Room” daily devotional magazine might remember this from May 8. Betty Rosian from Pennsylvania wrote, “Looking at Sarah, I could hardly believe this was the same woman I had known earlier. Now she was in a neuro-psychiatric ward at the hospital suffering with deep depression. Her eyes were heavy and red. This woman who had always been deeply faithful was telling me in a low and tearful voice, ‘I don’t think God cares about me anymore. I’m not sure I even believe anymore.’”
I would say to Sarah, and I’ve had to say to myself many times, as well as to others, “No matter how you may feel right now, no matter what you fear or what you may sometimes think, remember this fact – and it is a fact: God is never far from you, for in him, you ‘live and move and have [your very] being.’ If God were not upholding you and giving you breath right now, you would not exist. You ARE God’s offspring, God’s child, God’s beloved, God’s own unique creation. Remember that. It’s a fact. And it is vitally important.”
And I say to each of you, no matter how you may feel right now, whether comfortable and relieved that we’re talking about these things, or uncomfortable and anxious, no matter how you feel, what you fear, what you may sometimes think, or how you or someone you love may struggle, remember this: God is never far from you, for in him, you “live and move and have [your very] being.” You ARE God’s offspring, God’s child, God’s beloved, God’s own unique creation. Remember that. It is vitally important.
One goal for having a designated Mental Health Awareness Sunday is to make ourselves and our congregation more welcoming and nurturing for people with mental illnesses or brain disorders. “The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network (UCC MHN),” in fact, “works to reduce stigma and promote the inclusion of people with mental illnesses/ brain disorders and their families in the life and work of congregations.”
Why do we want to include such people and families in the life and work of the congregation? One reason is that they are already there! They are already here!
First and foremost, though, we want to welcome and include them rather than ignore or ostracize or stigmatize them because Jesus asks us to. We are called to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. We are all created differently; and we need to remember that different does not mean deficient. It just means different.
So, first and foremost, we want to become more aware and welcoming, understanding and supportive, because Christ calls us to love one another as he has loved us. In addition, it’s good both for people journeying with mental illness and for the church.
As one person put it, “For persons experiencing a mental illness, we can be instruments of God’s love and hope to those in the grip of darkness and despair.” Connecting people with mental health challenges with other people in a positive way can be a real life-saver for them.
Another reason is that each person, each and every person, has strengths and gifts that can add to the blessings we experience as a family of faith. Finding ways for people to be useful is good for them and for the church. It can help restore their confidence; and they can provide valuable services to the church. One person put it this way, “Finding some way for a person to do tasks that are meaningful and ways they can give to the community and feel connected as a valuable part of your community can be a way to provide hope and social support.”
Some of the things we can do to be helpful and supportive to people with mental health challenges include sincerely asking someone how they are doing in their journey with mental illness; visiting them in the hospital or at home if they desire; recognizing the tremendous strength and courage it takes to live every day with mental health challenges and applauding and congratulating those on their journey. In addition, “We can look within ourselves, at our own stereotypes and misconceptions and can educate ourselves about mental health issues so that we can truly empathize with those who struggle.”
A couple of simple do’s and don’t’s in relation to talking with others about issues of mental health. One “do” is to respect the person’s confidentiality. Don’t share with others about mental health conditions that someone shares with you. They may not want others to know.
Do encourage people to get medical help for mental health concerns. “Don’t tell a person with mental illness to just pray harder. That would not be appropriate advice for someone with cancer or a heart condition, and it is not appropriate for someone with mental illness. Mental illnesses are biologically based and frequently respond well to medications, just like other disorders.”
Do take care of your own mental health. Mental Health America affirms that “there are many healthy choices and steps that individuals can adopt to promote and strengthen mental health – and overall health and well-being.” Whether you have an identified mental health problem or not, “Everyone can take steps to protect and strengthen their minds and bodies.”
Remember, no matter how you feel, what you fear, what you may sometimes think, or how you or someone you love may struggle: God is never far from you, for in him, you “live and move and have [your very] being.” You ARE God’s offspring, God’s child, God’s beloved. Remember that. It is vitally important.
And be assured that “Miracles [do] abound. New life [can spring] forth. Walls that divide [can be] broken down and the stone [does get] rolled away.”
Let us pray: “God of love, today as we celebrate Mental Health [Awareness] Sunday, stir in us deep compassion for people living with brain disorders and their families. Raise our awareness of how we can create a supportive and safe spiritual community for people who feel isolated, shunned and ashamed. Inspire us to reach out in love as a sign of your radical hospitality and grace. Encourage us to receive the gifts that are given by all, including those who are living with mental health challenges. [We pray in Jesus’ name.] Amen.”