"Do not be afraid... do not be silent" by Alan Johnson



“Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent.” 
Acts 18:9b

“Shhh…” she said so quietly. “I am on medication!”

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By Alan Johnson

She was 17 years old and came by the booth at the UCC General Synod that I was hosting for our UCC Mental Health Network. Even before she whispered this to me, she had looked around to make sure no one else was listening. I leaned in as she spoke so quietly. She told me that she has been living with depression. She had kept it as a secret for a long time. Then finally she talked with her mom who helped her find a therapist which led to her taking medication. Her clinical depression had been clinging to her spirit weighing her down. But now, she said, she is engaged with others, is a member of a church youth group, and has even had the courage to tell one of her closest friends of her struggles with depression.

I felt privileged that she would talk with me, a stranger, although I was at our denomination’s meeting and I was at a display on mental health. She seemed relieved to be able to speak, to name her situation, and to find a listening heart. There was nothing that I said other than affirming that she has found a way to come out of her silence. It sounded that she has found support and that she is integrating this experience into her life which is just a part of her life.

There are so many people, including young people, who are living in the shadow of mental health challenges. The widespread statistic is that 1 out of 4 people experience some kind of mental health challenge each year. 1 out of 17 people live with a serious mental illness/brain disorder such as bipolar, schizophrenia, or major depression, among others. They are in our families. They are in our faith communities. How can we offer the hospitality of spirit so that the sharing of such experiences as this teenager’s story can be balm for healing and offer hope?

In the Mental Health First Aid manual we read, “Fighting the stigma and shame associated with mental illness is often more difficult than battling the illness itself. Ramifications of stigma include suffering in silence rather than seeking help; negative impact in seeking housing, employment, and relationships; and even internalizing negative attitudes about oneself. Stigma is a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.”

One of the noticeable ways to break the silence on mental illness is by using caring and compassionate words in a clergy person’s sermons, homilies, and/or prayers. While many congregations are not known for welcoming the naming of mental health challenges, they can be a way to begin overcoming the isolation in which so many people live. For example, using such words in our prayers, “we pray for those who are living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or major depression,” or “we pray for those who are battling addictions or mental illness,” or “we pray for those who are affected by mental health challenges, including their families and friends,” can be an open door for people who are living in the isolation of silence and to come out and speak or at least realize they are not alone.

When have you experienced such a welcome? When has hospitality opened a door for you or someone you love to find a place where their spirit can be at home? I don’t really know if the 17 year old girl felt better talking with me. However, I surely did feel connected with her for a very brief time. I have told this story so others may also be attentive to those times when chance encounters can lead to breaking the silence. Out of the whisper, a truth was spoken that led from vulnerability to strength. Rather than “Shhh,” we can speak, we can listen, and we can be connected.
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.