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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.

Raising More Hell by Alan Johnson

written by Alan Johnson

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10 

I'm sorry for not raising more hell about the mental health and criminal justice systems. 
---Alan Johnson 

I want to reflect on why I did not raise more hell, as Parker Palmer writes, “on behalf of whatever we care about,” in his book,“On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old.” 

She was a young adult woman who was creative, bright, good conversationalist, and was compassionate. So, what happened when the criminal system and the mental health system almost crushed her? While her eating disorder finally ended her life, her mental health challenges were very prevalent. Toward the end of her life when there were no psyche beds in our local area for her to be hospitalized and she was in need, she was taken to a psychiatric hospital hours from where she had been living. 

After only a day or so and despite the fact that she was outwardly psychotic, she was taken back to her hometown. She was dropped off at the local homeless shelter. It was the middle of the day. It wasn’t open. She was left without a coat, with no money. 

She was hungry; she was still unbalanced and disoriented. She found a package on the porch of a nearby house. She took it, thinking it was for her. She then looked for shelter in a nearby apartment whose door was open. The occupants called the police. She was taken to jail. They considered her suicidal because of comments she made in the police car. While still on suicide watch and psychotic she plead guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing a package valued at $50. She spent three months in jail with little or no access to mental health treatment. Three months of jail time at more than $60/day. Surely we can do better than this. 

Obviously there was a “lack of communication” between the criminal and the mental health systems. Now that the majority of mental health is being given in prisons which also sets up the tension between punishment and recovery, this woman's bouncing back and forth finally found a diversion program. The ineptitude is staggering. I ought to have raised more hell about how she was being treated and this in a community which is progressive! However, all the same, when my son has been manic and the police were called in, even when he did break and enter an apartment, they have always taken him to the psyche hospital than to jail I am deeply appreciative of that. 

If you are drawn to this conversation about the criminal treatment of mental illness I strongly urge you to read “Insane: America's Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” by Alisa Roth. The plethora of stories, the history of criminal justice and mental health treatment, the attitude of making people disappear/become invisible, and the beginning of humane care and compassion will engage and clarify right where we are in our country about these experiences and concerns. 

Our United Church of Christ Mental Health Network is assiduously working on ways to engage congregations in understanding and addressing mental health in our faith context. In this nexus of criminal justice and mental illness, I am perplexed. It is so huge; it is so complex. In many ways I do not know how to proceed. Perhaps you are engaged. Perhaps you are working in this context. If so, I would love to hear what you are learning and doing. Do I need to raise some good old hell for what might be more compassionate and just than what I am doing? I think so, even just to give credence to the grief I carry for what I did not do for the middle age woman last year. 

And will there be a compassionate gesture, even a metaphorical righteous hand, to uphold those who are caught up, handled with cruelty, and become invisible in the mental health and criminal justice systems? And this God who will not forsake us will strengthen and help you and me? May it be so.

Finding Rest by Karl Shallowhorn

written by Karl Shallowhorn

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Matthew 11:28 (NKJV)

Last week was Labor Day in the U.S., which is celebrated annually on the first Monday in September and is a creation of the labor movement. Dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers, it constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. (U.S. Department of Labor)

While labor is looked at as being associated with a workers’ daily grind there is another connection as well. In the scripture from Matthew, Christ invites all of us who are weary to find a place of rest in his comforting arms. I believe that this particularly pertains to those of us living with mental health and/or addiction conditions as well as for those loved ones who are often burdened with the responsibility of taking care of someone who is in the midst of their own struggle.

As someone who lives with a co-occurring disorder, I can personally attest to feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of living this way for the rest of my life. It took me many years to come to a place of acceptance in which I had to acknowledge that I needed help and that I couldn’t fight this battle alone. And sometimes I just got tired. Tired, frustrated, angry, and confused. Eventually, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. And that is when I had to surrender. While surrender is often seen in the negative, when it comes to recovery from addiction and mental illness, surrender can be the key to beginning to find a way to a better life.

On a side note, recovery, itself, is a very complex issue. What much of it all boils down to is the human brain. Research shows that those who live with mental health and addiction disorders, have brain systems that are different in nature than those who do not. This, essentially, can make the prospect of developing a stable lifestyle that much more challenging. If it were so simple to be “cured” of addiction and mental illness, then most people would not have to live with a condition that can be so disabling.

Hence, developing a life that is symptom-free can be especially challenging. This is where the fatigue sets in. I’ve had times when I simply just have said, “NO MAS!!” It is at these times that I have had to pray for relief and comfort. I have had to employ my recovery tools and also actively practice the faith it takes to overcome whatever issue I’m facing. Due to my chronic, lifelong condition, I have to continuously seek help from the Power greater than myself.

Life can be an arduous and long journey, fraught with despair and disappointment. For those living with brain disorders of any kind, it can result in a sense of hopelessness resulting from the relentless exhaustion created by chaos and despair.

The thing to remember is that Christ is available to give us a place to find solace. No matter what I’m facing I know that He is present and wants to help me recharge for the day at hand. I’ve had countless experiences that have served to prove this in my life. If you find yourself worn down know that Christ is there for you. We all need to take a break every once in a while.

Be well!
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.