BRAD ULGENES column: Light in the darkness: reflections on mental illness

BRAD ULGENES column: Light in the darkness: reflections on mental illness

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During these dark winter days when the church celebrates Epiphany, I‘ve been thinking about mental illness and the verse from John 1:5 which says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. “ I’ve struggled with seasonal affective disorder because of the darkness these winter months bring; in others it can cause depression, withdrawal and even contemplation of suicide.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a social message entitled, “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness (see that’s shed some light on mental illness. It says, “A mental illness can be defined as a health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feeling or behavior (or all three) and causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning.“ One out of five families in Montana will be affected by mental illness.

Mental illness is the result of a complex integration of factors, including inherited traits, biological factors, life experience, and brain chemistry. Mental illnesses range from mild to severe, such as mild depression and anxiety to severe depression, bi-polar and schizophrenia.”

The stigma and shame associated with mental illness and trauma is lessening as more light and attention is given about it. We’re learning more about post traumatic stress syndrome and suicide prevention. Some people of faith see mental illness, such as depression, as a sign of weak faith. Others may feel that their suffering is due to personal sin in their life. Yet we see in the Bible many heroes of faith suffered from various forms of mental illness and distress. King David and Elijah wrestled with despair.

King Saul had an “evil spirit” come upon him that caused fits of rage where David would comfort him by playing music. In biblical times, symptoms of what we now call serious mental illness would mostly have been attributed to demonic possession. When Jesus heals the Gerasene man in Luke 8, he was a man living in tombs, alienated from his community, and bound by chains. After healing him, Jesus tells him to return to his original community to tell what has happened.

The church can be a powerful and welcoming place for people who are in recovery and experiencing healing, as they return to tell their stories of hope. Social workers and case managers often speak about an individual’s “support system” for those living with mental illnesses. What better support system is there than caring members of a church or faith community who cares for and encourages people and families struggling with mental illness? We offer the gift of prayer and intercede for those whose lives are shattered by mental illness. We are called to bear one another’s burdens. We can listen and befriend them.

People living with mental illness need relationship, not judgment. All of us live under the brokenness of sin in God’s creation. Mental illness, like cancer, is one sign of that brokenness. The church can be a powerful community where wholeness and healing for body, mind and spirit can be found. Chaplain Chris Haughee of Intermountain has authored a great six week study entitled “Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks.” Small groups can use it earn about and study childhood trauma. Caring relationships are key.

Here in Helena we have some outstanding organizations that provide treatment and support to those individuals and families suffering from mental illness. The National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI) provides support groups for families. Shodair Hospital, The Center for Mental Health, Benefis Health, and Fort Harrison provide resources for treatment and counseling with limited financial resources. I applaud the compassionate work they are doing. It’s a sign of courage and strength to help from these God given organizations.

One of the barriers to mental health is the cost of treatment, counseling and medication. Matt Kuntz, executive director of NAMI, spoke to members at St. John’s and said that the Affordable Care Act has been a godsend in opening the doors and paying for treatment for those needing mental health resources. With the shortage of mental health options and accessibility to treatment, we need our county, state and federal governments to provide more funding so all may have access to care; in fact, I believe our country needs a systematic overhaul of our mental health care delivery system. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. Paying for care through higher taxes is part of the cost of providing care for the most vulnerable neighbors.

Studies show that fifty percent of those who are incarcerated and those who are homeless have mental health issues which are not being treated. Unfortunately, news reports of shootings often cite mental health problems as the reason for the violent act. Most often, people with mental illness who are symptomatic are confused and frightened, are targets of violence rather than perpetrators of it. Every person merits the dignity of compassionate understanding and care rather than categorization and stigma.

Mental illness cannot always be “cured,” but it can be treated, and people who suffer its effects can experience recovery or healing, or alleviation of symptoms. There is hope and light in the darkness as we face the complex issues surrounding mental illness. More light is needed. People living with mental illnesses are created by God as an act of love, and are worthy of loving and being loved. People with illnesses should not be defined by their illness, but we as a society will be defined and remembered by God and future generations on how we respond with compassion to those suffering from mental illness.

Pastor Brad is a board member of Helena NAMI, has been trained in suicide prevention (QPR), and is beginning his eighth year of ministry at St. John’s Lutheran Church.



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