“I’ve been a pastor here for years, and I’d never heard that story.” I’ve heard this feedback, referring to a parishioner who shared something previously kept quiet, from more than a few clergy after a presentation and facilitated conversation about mental health in a congregation. Fear of mental health stigma in the church keeps too many people quiet about their mental health.
Why I start with my own story
I was diagnosed with Type II bipolar disorder in 2011, after six months in and out of a series of psychiatric units.
In the years since, I’ve shared that story with faith communities, hospital staffs, and student groups as a way of “going first,” creating space where others can share their own stories. Implicitly or explicitly, many of us have picked up the message from our communities that “we don’t talk about that here.”
Breaking the stigma by sharing our whole selves
It’s thus a powerful act of resistance against stigma to share a story and affirm that “talking about that here” is exactly what makes us a community of faith—for here, we can bring our whole selves, including our hidden struggles and internal landscapes, to God and each other, with the expectation of receiving love and grace.
The leaders who have told me some version of “I’ve never heard that story” have no interest or intention to enforce mental health stigma in their congregation. In fact, quite the opposite! The difficult thing about being clergy is that the expectations and assumptions of our communities often get projected on us, despite our best intentions. To have a space intentionally opened up for sharing creates new opportunities for engagement, care, and advocacy.
The biblical model in Mark 6
Mark 6:30 tells us that the “apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” This scene is sandwiched between some truly painful experiences for Jesus and the disciples, and a miracle in which Jesus turns a situation of seeming scarcity into the feeding of thousands of hungry people. The apostles told Jesus all they had done, which, if the preceding verses are any indication, probably included a fair amount of rejection, struggle, and pain.
What if this little verse gives us a model for how our communities can be places of inclusion, care, and advocacy for those of us with mental health challenges—which, really, is all of us?
How to start breaking the stigma around mental health through story-sharing
What if it is exactly by gathering to share stories that we are transformed by grace to be able to go out into the world and make a material difference for those most in need?
In the case of mental health challenges, that need may be a meal or access to care. It may mean help out of medical debt caused by hospitalization or advocacy for mental health parity. It may be the work of challenging chronic homelessness and mass incarceration, which have taken the place of a functioning mental health system for far too many people.
Whatever form the need takes, we meet it as people who have been gathered, transformed by grace, and sent out into the world as instruments of that same transformation.