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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.

A sad good-bye becomes a teachable moment by Alan Johnson

“...then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your healing shall spring up quickly...”Isa. 58:8

written by Alan Johnson

The obituary said the young man had lived with bipolar disorder and had ended his life.  It was clear, honest and direct. It was published in the local newspaper for all the world to see.  That was a couple years ago now.

In the obituary, the family suggested that any donations in memory of their son be sent to our church’s Mental Health Ministry, even though they had only attended our church once, when we had Pete Earley, a well-known author and mental health advocate, as a guest speaker. From that single event, the parents knew our church would not be judgmental, but rather would be responsive and supportive in their time of need. Even though I am retired, I was asked to officiate because my brother had ended his life eight years ago. They knew I’d walked the path that led them to our door.

At the memorial service, the father asked the 200-plus people in the church for 18 minutes of their attention as he talked about his son’s 10-year journey with mental illness, what people can do to overcome stigma and how to become educated on mental illness.

I was blown away by the father’s bravery, the power of his message and his willingness to turn his son’s tragic death into a teachable moment. In that time, there was light and healing  within us; the flower of awareness was present.

When my own brother died, there was no mention of suicide or mental illness in his obituary or at his memorial service. Some members of my family are still reluctant to acknowledge my brother ended his life himself.

Has the world changed so much in eight years that it is now safe to talk about suicide and mental illness in public when it wasn’t before? Or does it still take remarkable courage to ignore our society’s taboo on talking about suicide and mental illness, to reject the aura of shame that surrounds these topics? To name it openly. To stare it in the face without blinking.

I salute the family who came to us in their pain and grief and thank them for their courage. May we all be so brave. May we each do our part to make the world a better place for people with mental illnesses and their families. May we each testify to the support we can offer to each other out of our own grief.  

More recently, I learned of the death by suicide of the 27 year old son of a colleague.  That happened two days before this op-ed piece in our local paper was published, “A message of hope from a survivor.”  In that piece, the author, having become a suicide survivor, speaks out about how so important it is to “talk about depression and the importance of getting help.”

There IS help available.  Everyone ought to have this telephone number on them so a situation may indicate there may be a thought about suicide.  1-800-273-8255 (TALK).  Awareness may be the first step toward salvation, someone once wrote.  We need to be aware and not to deny or avoid this up-to-now taboo subject.  

The op-ed piece continues, “We need to embrace people who are struggling and those who have lost loved ones to that struggle.”  It took me some inner search to find a bit more than “I am deeply sorry for the death of your son by suicide,” I wrote to my colleague.  And as the author put it, “There is always another way out of the darkness.”  That is my affirmation, too, although perhaps one of the lights in that darkness might be just being present, acknowledging the loss, and sit with the anguish as I reach to embrace my colleague.  
Alan Johnson is a mental health advocate who served on the national United Church Board of Homeland Ministries, 1979-1995, retired as chaplain at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, and serves as chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.

Thank God for Grace by Karl Shallowhorn

written by Karl Shallowhorn

“But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me was not without effect.
No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I,
but the grace of God that was with me.”
1 Corinthians 15:10

In our age of uncertainty, there are many who feel that there is no God. After all, if there were any kind of Supreme Being, how could it allow such horrible things to happen all the time. All you have to do is turn on the news (which I’ve been doing less of lately) and there it is, evidence that flies in the face of the faith that those of us, as Christians, profess.

And then there’s the idea of cause and effect, or as some would call it, karma. While I do believe in the scientific principle that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, I don’t think that this is quite the way God works. 

To get more personal, when I consider my life, I can recall countless times when my actions have fallen short of what would be considered “ideally” Christian. As a person in long-term recovery, I will be the first to tell you that my behaviors bely a history of continuous refinement in an attempt to confront the issues I’ve carried for so long. That said, I have made progress, which for me is evidence of a Power greater than myself at work in my life. I haven’t done this all by myself. I’ve had a lot of help along the way, as evidenced by the many people who have served as “angels unaware.”

First of all, my life has gotten better, and not just outwardly speaking. I’ve also gained great insight into myself and as I like to say, ‘what makes me tick.”

Second, and most importantly, I know what it means to experience God’s grace. If God kept score, then I’d probably be in the negative figures. But fortunately, the God of my understanding doesn’t operate this way. If anything, God, through the life and example of Jesus, has really cut me some slack. And for that I’m grateful. Jesus forgives.

Now before you get the wrong idea, I do not equate addiction to sin or immoral behavior (even though it may seem that way). And that is where God’s grace comes in. I believe that addiction is a complicated brain disease with many causes and origins and I believe that this is how God looks at it. 

God recognizes that despite how seemingly horrible one’s actions that are associated with addiction are, God through Jesus, forgives us. 

Mind you, there is a sense of accountability that comes with this knowledge. Even though those of us living with addiction do struggle, it doesn’t give us a “get out of jail free card.” I believe that the consequences we sometimes face are God’s way of getting us to look at ourselves and make the changes necessary to draw closer to God.

Like I said earlier, addiction is very complicated and, in my opinion, most people are somewhere on the addict spectrum. BUT, through God’s benevolence we can recover and find a new way to live. 
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.