Other – Active Minds Blog http://activemindsblog.org Changing the conversation about mental health Mon, 10 Jul 2017 17:03:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Without Hope or Fear http://activemindsblog.org/without-hope-or-fear/ Fri, 16 Jun 2017 14:53:02 +0000 http://activemindsblog.org/?p=6664 As I finish my second year of Divinity School I find myself reflecting on the events that led me to this moment. Eleven years ago this spring I had a breakdown and was finally diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder. In the midst of that terrifying summer there was one thing that brought me solace. When someone was able to sit with me in my suffering without trying to change anything, the intense loneliness of that mental pain was alleviated. The people who saw me as a whole person rather than an illness, the people who sat beside me with an open heart, gave me back a sense of dignity in the midst of that hellish summer.

That experience has fueled my calling to pursue chaplaincy. Chaplaincy is one of the last roles in a hospital that isn’t subject to a tight schedule. As a result we are free to sit with someone without any task or agenda. We are not there to fix anything. Ginger Brooks writes, “As a chaplain, my role on the team is to be the person with nothing to do, who stays present to the patient or family member… I feel my job is to hold and communicate the view that there is no problem with what is happening, that nothing needs repair.”

It seems so counterintuitive that sometimes we are most useful when we abandon hope and fear. It is easy to assume that hope is a good thing, the antidote to fear, and something we should be quick to offer. What I’m learning is that bringing our hope to a situation gets in the way of meeting the suffering. If the person suffering speaks of hope we hold enough space for that. But we cannot lead with our own hope. To bring hope into a room is sometimes only an effort to mask our own fear.

What I’m learning is that we have to get comfortable with our own pain before we can meet someone in their pain. In the throes of depression I don’t necessarily want someone to assure me that I’ll be better soon. I want someone to reflect to me that I am loved right there, right in the midst of that despair. It is a natural human impulse when entering a dark room to turn on the brightest light we have. When I’m sitting in that inner darkness of depression though I don’t always want someone else to turn on a light. I want someone else to sit in the dark room beside me, fearlessly.

It is easy to mistake caring with curing. It is also easy to assume that healing means recovery. I think it’s important to explore the difference. Sometimes the best way to care for someone is to stop trying to cure them, to stop trying to fix the situation. I’m learning in my own life that it is possible to heal in the midst of living with an illness of the brain. I haven’t set the goal of recovery because I know that this is an illness I will always live with. But I feel it’s possible to heal on a deep level. I have felt that healing so strongly in these eleven years.

Self-compassion has been one of the greatest factors in my healing process. That self-compassion was born out of the compassion of those people who were able to sit open-heartedly beside me. What I’m learning as a chaplain is that healing can happen at any moment. Healing happens even when there is no cure. When we sit with someone in their illness, we make space for that healing. It is important to allow their pain to reach us— even to change us. I’m learning that one of the greatest gifts we can give another person is our willingness to do nothing— simply to sit beside them with a steady heart.

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Religion, Faith, Spirituality, and Mental Health. Where’s the crossroads? http://activemindsblog.org/religion-faith-spirituality-and-mental-health-wheres-the-crossroads/ Tue, 30 May 2017 15:17:29 +0000 http://activemindsblog.org/?p=6484

Religion…. A word that comes with baggage. What’s the first thing you think when you hear “religion”? Perhaps you think of your religion, church, or other place of worship. Perhaps you think about the controversy that has surrounded religion and all the negative that has come out of it.

Spirituality…. Definitely associated with religion, but probably evoking more thoughts about how one internally understands their religion or belief system.

Faith…. Now personally, this is a hard one for me to pin down. Faith, to define it succinctly, is belief/confidence/trust in someone or something. In terms of religion, your faith is your confidence in the truth, as you understand it, in a belief system, whether that’s an organized religion or your own belief system.

My own experience with faith and religion goes something like this:

When I was a teenager, for probably a multitude of minuscule reasons, I didn’t like religion [as I understood it] and I certainly didn’t like church. I didn’t get it. When I was 15 or 16 years old, in a deep depression and dealing with more than I had the capacity or will to understand, I spent a lot of time watching documentaries. It was just what I did when I wanted to shut out the world around me. One day I turned on PBS and found myself just in time for the beginning of a documentary called “The Buddha”. It was about the Buddha’s life and the beginnings of Buddhism. I was enthralled. I mean, usually I’d watch a documentary and think ‘yeah that was interesting’ and move on. But this time, I couldn’t get this story out of my head. I spent a lot of time after that studying Buddhism on the internet. I read about principles, practices, and meditations (though I never gave them a solid shot in practice). Eventually, I had learned all that I cared to as an outsider to the religion.

Two years later, my interest was revitalized and I started reading again, and this time not just about the religion. I started reading the scripture. I learned about Buddhist meditation and started meditating. This time was much better. It was shortly after this that I understood faith for the first time. I mean really understood it. No joke, I was meditating one morning when I had a bit of an epiphany. “What if it (i.e. organized religion) is all just made up and faith is something that we feel in our hearts? What if there is no one correct religion or belief system? What if some people are just wired to feel faith through God? And others in nature? Or in any particular scripture?”

Those thoughts kind of blew my mind. But it wasn’t just that I had this revelation in my conceptual understanding of religion. I realized that I now knew what faith felt like, and truthfully, I don’t really know how to explain that feeling, but it felt good.

From that point on I was compelled to adopt compassion and appreciation for the world and the people around me as the foundations of my belief system, and this gave me the happiness and sense of satisfaction I had been seeking for a long time, which I can only imagine is the same feeling that other people get from their religion/faith. I also started to understand religious communities and their importance. I learned that religion/spirituality/faith is something personal, and when you feel attached to your faith, your entire state of well being is elevated.

Now, of course, this is merely my personal understanding, based on my experience, of how faith and religion/spirituality can help improve mental health. Therefore, I’ve done some snooping around the internet for you.

According to NAMI, faith and spirituality can improve mental well being by providing people with an increased sense of togetherness and community, a sense of understanding, and increased opportunities to help others. Taking the time to learn about faith-based practices can also give you the opportunity to learn new perspectives, habits, and tools to improve your well being. Some people find solace in praying, reading, singing, or making art, just to name a few examples. For many people the ritual involved in some religious practices is also beneficial. For me, meditation, positive social interactions, and remembering what Buddhism has taught me are my most important self-care practices.

Sure, religion can be a hard topic to approach in some environments, and sometimes it comes with negative connotations that make it look intimidating or difficult or judgmental, and that’s just about the last thing we need when we’re living with or recovering from a mental health challenge. You could say that religion has a certain stigma attached to it, but that’s our specialty, right? Besides, the good news is that religion and spirituality are not scary and they’re not there to make you into someone you’re not.

Don’t get me wrong, spirituality isn’t a cure-all for mental disorders. It also isn’t a one size fits all, with many people never even feeling the need to have a spiritual or religious connection, and that’s perfectly okay. However, if faith is something you’re looking for, I’d be willing to bet that you can find something that’s going to float your Ark, if you know what I mean. For students, I’d highly recommendation taking a look around your campus or your school’s website. Maybe there’s an office of Religious Life or a webpage that lists all of the active student groups or affiliated places of worship in the community. Then, do yourself a favor and reach out to them. Find out about upcoming events or weekly worship times. In my experience, faith communities have been some of the most welcoming groups of people I’ve ever met.

Or maybe you already knew all of this and I’m preaching to the choir (pun definitely intended). And maybe your chapter is interested in tackling the subject on your campus. What then? Why not reach out to a religious or spiritual group on campus? Maybe suggest a collaboration in the form of a discussion about mental health and religion. Or find a film or television show that introduces the topic and have a public showing (with snacks of course). Or do some more research and then table about the benefits of religious/spiritual connection on mental health and start a discussion that way. Get creative and don’t be afraid to start an awkward or difficult conversation. I mean that’s what we do here at Active Minds, right?

Russell is a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee and a chapter leader at the University of Maine.

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Mothers and Mental Health http://activemindsblog.org/mothers-and-mental-health/ Sun, 14 May 2017 12:00:52 +0000 http://activemindsblog.org/?p=6619

It’s very easy to pass Mother’s Day over as a holiday invented (or at least commandeered) by Hallmark to sell cards. However, celebrations of moms go back hundreds of years, with multiple different days of celebration and specific traditions. This includes both the Ancient Romans, who celebrated the festival of Hilaria on the Ides of March to celebrate the mother goddess Cybele, as well as the residents of the former Yugoslavia, who celebrated Mother’s Day around December by having children tie their mothers to their beds (seriously). These facts demonstrate that, if nothing else, we as humans have been grateful to our mothers for as long as they have existed. Mother’s Day is, despite all our cynicism, a great opportunity to recognize all that our mothers do for us.

I have a pretty awful memory. I very often forget important meetings, important dates, and even what I had for breakfast this morning. But I find that I effortlessly remember most of the times I’ve talked with my mother about mental illness. I remember explaining to her that sometimes I did things that I felt like I had no choice to do. I remember talking with her when I suddenly couldn’t stop laughing. I remember her comforting me when I was at my most depressed. My mother was there for me even when I, myself, was not there for me. She supported me when I could not.

Not everyone has a mother or a motherly figure in their lives, but I’m willing to say most of us have had somebody to take care of them in their life, even if briefly. Talking to a figure like this about mental illness is not always the easiest conversation to have. We all want to please our mothers, make them proud of us. It’s very easy to be ashamed of mental illness, and even easier to assume that it will distance us from the ones we love. Stigma can, unfortunately, seep into the relationships that we hold with our family members. Being able to openly talk with a mother can change a life in this context.

Consequently, Active Minds was not where I learned that mental illness shouldn’t be stigmatized. It was not via the internet, friends, or any other source – it was my mom. My mother never once questioned the legitimacy of the problems I was experiencing. She never hesitated to give me the support that I needed. And above all, she never made me feel ashamed of mental illness. She was willing to hear me out and accompanied me on my journey of health. My mother championed my mental health in ways that I still cannot fully comprehend.

In the spirit of Mother’s Day, I felt the need to recognize how hard mothers work to fight the stigma of mental health every day. It seems that everyday I hear another story about somebody with a story like mine: whose mother was invaluable on their journey to better mental health. There’s a lot of things that we can take from this, and a lot of ways to celebrate all the contributions your mother has impacted your life. We just advise against tying her to a bed.

Thanks, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day! 

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