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The Journey: the UCC Mental Health Network Blog

Welcome to the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network (UCC MHN) blog, The Journey. Our weekly posts will explore mental health and addiction through the lens of our Christian faith. We will write about how our personal experiences affect our lives and how our spirituality supports our journey. Everyone who is living with a mental health or addiction disorder, or has a loved one who is affected by a mental health challenge or addiction, is on a journey. Together we can connect with each other and share some ways to travel the path of hope and wholeness.

Remind Me Who I Am by Rev. Megan Snell

written by Rev. Megan Snell

I am someone who lives with chronic mental illness. Many days I am stable, clear-headed, calm, focused, content. I’m a person who gets a lot done in a day. I live a full and fulfilling life full of ministry, music, friends, family, creative pursuits. But other days, I find myself sinking, weighed down by depression. I feel it in my body, in my bones. I feel like I am at the ophthalmologist's office and I have this lens in front of my eyes called depression. It clouds everything. 

Depression mutes my vocal affect and slows my facial expressions. Depression is a lens that makes it harder to connect with the people around me and with the world itself. It mutes everything to a low volume. Some days depression makes it hard to get out of bed and do the basics of being alive. On those days I try to remember to celebrate every little victory. Get up. Celebrate. Make and eat breakfast. Celebrate. And on it goes. 

I have some little signs that I’ve made that I put up in my house when I’m depressed. They say things like: “when your brain is tired, let it rest” and “Just do one thing at a time” and “You are capable, creative, worthy, and loved”. These are messages on my walls and mirrors meant to contradict the messages to the contrary that my mind produces when in the depths of depression.

Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States live with a mental illness. So many of us have experience living with mental illness. Mental illness can often be unreasonable, illogical, and it can result in people forgetting who they truly are-- forgetting that they are a beloved one, made in God’s image. 

Despite the prevalence of mental illness in our society, to live with mental illness is still a shame-filled experience, often full of isolation, stigma, and loneliness. One of the most powerful things we can do is to remind one another, especially in times when mental illness is in the picture, who we are: beloved ones, made in God’s image. It can be so helpful to people experiencing mental illness to receive the unconditional positive regard and affirmation of belovedness from loved ones and from a church community. 

In the winter of 2016 I experienced a particularly severe episode of depression. I had just gotten married, which was fabulous. I had just moved to a new house, which was great. But, these were big changes and I had a number of other life stresses going on at that time. And, that’s the thing about depression and many other mental illnesses-- they aren’t reasonable. Things can be going great and still a person can become severely depressed. That was the case for me. For weeks I was in the grips of a serious depression. 

One late morning I found myself weeping on my living room couch. I had a favorite record on the record player. There were birds chirping in a tree outside. The sun was coming in through the window. My dogs were laying on the floor beside me. But I couldn’t experience any of these pieces of my surroundings. 

As I sank from the couch to the floor, in the midst of a panic attack on top of my depression, my wife came up alongside me and reminded me of what was real. She reminded me that I was sitting on a solid wood floor which held all of me, safely. She reminded me that I was in my home, where I was loved. She reminded me of the various parts of who I am- competent, creative, worthy.
She reminded me who I am: beloved and made in God’s image. 

When mental illness tells us that we are unworthy, having someone come up alongside us to remind us who we are (beloved and made in God’s image) and whose we are (a child of God) can make a big impact. I pray that our church communities increasingly become places in which we remind one another that at all times, including when we are experiencing mental illness, we are all beloved. We are all worthy. We are all created, known, and loved by God. 
Rev. Megan Snell is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, currently serving in the Boston metro area. She also lives with chronic mental illness. Megan is doctoral student at Pacific School of Religion, studying the intersection of mental illness and Christian community. She holds an MDiv from Andover Newton Theological School. Megan writes, teaches, and preaches regularly on the topics of mental health, mental illness, and faith. She also serves as Co-Moderator of the UCC's 2030 Clergy Network. Megan is a board game nerd and a hiking enthusiast. She and her wife share their home with three rescue dogs. 

The Second Greatest Commandment by Karl Shallowhorn

written by Karl Shallowhorn

It was about a month ago that I received a text message from an old friend. She shared that a good friend of hers’ son was in the midst of a mental health crisis and asked if I would be willing to speak with her. As is my custom I did not hesitate to reply, “Yes.”

When speaking with the mother I could hear the pain she was experiencing. That feeling of uncertainty about her son’s wellbeing, not to mention his future, was most pressing in her remarks. She asked if I would be willing to meet with him and I agreed to see him that evening.

Without going into further detail to preserve the identity of those involved, I will simply say that this certainly was not the first time I’ve had such meetings. In fact, over the last 5 or six years I’ve had many encounters, whether it be with individuals who are dealing with a mental health concern or their family member who is at a loss for where to turn and is simply looking for guidance.

In the Book of Matthew, Chapter 22 verse 39, Jesus tells a Pharisee the following, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, this can be applied to so many situations we are faced with, but for me it’s even more meaningful, especially in the area of mental health.

In my life I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had support from friends, family and even “angels unaware.” What it all comes down to is the simple fact that with all of the love I have received I feel that it is my responsibility to share that the same with others. Some would call it “paying it forward.” I would simply call it what Jesus is asking me to do.

When I think of the years I suffered from my bipolar condition I did not have a mentor or anyone who shared their personal experience with me. Mind you, I did have support, as I previously said, but I did not have a peer (someone who has a lived experience with mental illness) to provide me with guidance and a compassionate ear to listen to my struggles. Perhaps that is why I’m so compelled to help others as much as I am able. And in the end, I wish I could do more. In no way do I want anyone to go through the darkness that can be associated with mental illness all by themselves.

I realize I’m going to sound like an old fogey here, but when I was first going through my “stuff” there was no internet, blogs, social media or even cell phones. So connectedness was harder to come by with the exception of support groups that operated in the community (and even these were not as available as much as they are today). What that forced me to do was to learn, more on my own, how to manage my illness. There were no WebMD, Wikipedia, National Alliance on Mental Illness or Mental Health America websites (to name but a few resources). And even with these new innovations people still suffer.

I believe what it all boils down to is being in community with one another. One of the root terms for community from Old English is “fellowship.” It is in this idea of fellowship that we can come together to share the love that can be so freely given and received. If a person feels loved, then they will be more likely to have the feeling that they are accepted and getting the support they so rightly deserve.

As the rock and roll prophet John Lennon so aptly penned, “All we need is love.” Enough said.
Karl Shallowhorn is the Education Program Coordinator at the Community Health Center of Buffalo. Karl is a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor and also serves on the Board of Directors for the UCC Mental Health Network, the Mental Health Association in New York State, and the Mental Health Association of Erie County. He is also a contributing writer and blogger for BP magazine as well as for The Mighty. Karl is a 30-plus year member of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s-El Nuevo Camino UCC in Buffalo, NY.