Guest column by Dr. Mark Baird
“(L)ove provides the light by which we bear witness to (our) burdens.”
-Sharan Salzberg, “Loving Kindness”
How should the faith community respond to mental health? As we look to answer this question it is important to first note how we often respond to our own struggles. As human beings we have a remarkable ability to view ourselves through a lens of shame. We see this even in the origin story of Adam and Eve. After eating of the fruit they see their nakedness, feel shame and hide. We respond the same way today. We encounter emotions, thoughts and experiences that we feel aren’t normal. We feel shame. And then we hide. Sometimes it’s as extreme as staying at home and completely avoiding others. But more often we have swapped hiding behind fig leaves for hiding behind a smile. This “hiding” can actually be quite adaptable at work or at school. Frankly we need to be able to function, to do our jobs without becoming paralyzed by overwhelming emotions. But it becomes problematic if there is no place for us to come out of hiding.
Often our houses of worship are just one more place to have to hide our struggles. If you listen to conversations during greeting time they are filled with polite declarations of “I’m doing fine, and you?” I fear the faith community frequently, unintentionally, propagates the idea that one needs to be put together in order to fit into the community. Yet, Christ declared “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” We’ve often missed the opportunity to be a spiritual hospital for the hurting.
As a clinical psychologist, I’ve had the privilege of running many process groups. We start each group with a “check-in” where each member tells a bit about their week and how they are doing. In the first session, members tend to be polite, positive and give little detail into the struggle that brought them to group. Then, inevitably, one brave soul says something to the effect of, “I’m not doing well at all and here is why.” It is a joy to watch as other members nod their heads emphatically, expressing understanding and empathy. This breaks open the floodgates and authentic healing begins to take place.
As a faith community, we can respond in a similar fashion. We can say, “I struggle too! Tell me more about your struggle.” Whether or not our pain is caused by a diagnosable mental illness, frankly, doesn’t matter. What is vital is that we make our community a safe and loving space to be authentic. I have found that when we are fully seen – in all of our goodness, our “badness,” our victories and our shame – and then are fully loved, positive transformation begins to take place. To allow others to be fully seen, we must first risk being seen ourselves. Then we can come alongside others and minister to their wounds, as we allow others to minister to ours.
Join SpokaneFāVS for a Coffee Talk on the “Faith and Mental Illness” on 10 a.m., April 7 at Saranac Commons, 19 W. Main Ave. Baird is a panelist.