Depressed? Or Overburdened?

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The cartoonist makes an interesting point. Is the sufferer depressed or has he just been bowled over by a giant boulder that he can’t possibly move on his own? And what will be best for him (or her)? A depression diagnosis or help moving the rock?

COVID has bowled lots of people over. Lots of us are trying to cope using strategies that also could be interpreted as symptoms of depression: eating too much (gaining the Quarantine 19), streaming too much (more than six hours a day), sleeping too little (leading to the new term “coronasomnia“), giving up on our plans in the face of what seem unending, unpredictable changes that make the future impossible to predict.

Mental health experts diagnosed a surge of depression early in the pandemic. Many of us have sought professional help, some for the first time, since COVID began to challenge us all.

But are we really suffering from collective depression? Or do we all just need more help moving the COVID boulder?

What do you think? Has COVID left any “boulders” in your path? On top of you? What do you think might help?

What a Child’s Easter Drawing Teaches about Mental Illness

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The focusing illusion causes things to loom large in our thoughts when we pay attention to them — kind of like the Easter egg in this child’s drawing.

Don’t you love this Easter picture? A neighbor shared it with me after a young friend e-mailed it to her. Without any words, the picture tells a wonderful story about what matters to the young artist.

At right, we see the family home. Its shape and size are a bit skewed because this child still struggles with perspective. Is the house one story high? Three stories? Are those dormer windows in the roof? The child pays little attention to the architectural details her skills can’t illustrate. Instead, she focuses on filling each window with a warm yellow and pink glow and carefully placing a puff of smoke above the chimney. Whatever the house may look like in the real world, the child shows us a cozy home with a fire on the hearth.

At center, a tree stands nearly twice as tall as the house. Some trees are actually much taller than houses, but this is an apple tree and they don’t typically grow very high. Three apples dangle from its branches toward the ground — out of reach but hugely appealing. They’re so appealing to the artist that they are drawn as large as the house’s windows. But the tree’s gigantic trunk stands like a pillar, holding the tree’s leafy crown and tempting fruit far away from the diminutive artist, even though they dangle tantalizingly within view.

At left, the artist gives us the sun and a single elaborately decorated Easter egg. All the rest of the picture is truly just backstory to this glorious egg. It’s taller than the tree, maybe five times the size of the house. It reaches nearly to the sun, every inch covered with row on row of carefully detailed decoration. This wonderful egg is the child’s story of the family Easter. Is it an egg she found? An egg she decorated? Her own imagination of the best egg there could be? We don’t know. We just know that the egg is the important thing. It’s what she has focused on, and it is therefore what she has focused on in her drawing.

Our Giant Egg: Whatever We Focus On

In the same way that this youngster’s enthusiastic focus has exaggerated the size of her egg, we also are prone to overemphasize anything we focus on. Marketers use this tendency to their advantage. They even have a name for it: the focusing illusion.

The focusing illusion describes the way we can be encouraged to focus our attention on just one particular aspect of a product so we are more likely to buy on the basis of that characteristic alone. If a particular sofa is both very comfortable and very expensive, marketers can sell more of them by focusing our attention on comfort instead of any price considerations we might have. Sometimes they do this in ways that are easy to deconstruct — ads that show a parent and child cuddled together on the sofa, or an adult crashed out on the sofa under a handmade afghan. Other times, the focusing trick may be less obvious. One widely reported marketing test found that buyers would become focused on comfort if sofa ads included pictures of fluffy clouds.

Because of the focusing illusion, a sofa ad that includes images of clouds will incline buyers to prioritize comfort over other considerations.

What makes this an illusion is the mental sleight-of-hand it uses. The focusing illusion draws our attention to a single issue and distracts us from other concerns we bring to the buying decision. Like a magician who waves a handkerchief with one hand while dislodging a concealed coin with the other, the marketer focuses us on a single issue to distract us from other concerns. That makes it easier to dislodge the coin from our pockets.

When Mental Illness Becomes the Focus

What does this have to do with mental health?

Think for a minute about what comes to mind when you hear the phrase “mental health.”

In the 21st century West, the words “mental health” are less likely to conjure the ordinary strengths of the ordinary capable people you know than to focus your attention on “mental illness.” Mental illness is what you read about in newspapers and magazines, see in the movies, learn about in school and community educational campaigns, watch ads about. You know names for a number of “mental illnesses” — depression, bipolar disorder, general anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder. You know about “toxic personalities” and “narcissists.” You have learned that pills can provide relief from mental illnesses, and you’ve tuned out the soothing hum of listed side effects at the end of the TV commercials. You may even have learned a list of suicide precursors that you review anxiously every time your child yells, “I can’t stand this! I wish I was dead!”

Your mind has been refocused from the idea that mental health is the norm for most people — an ordinary way of life that we learn from each other’s strengths, sufferings, struggles and successes. You’re now focused on the idea that difficulties are mental illnesses, they are everywhere, and they require professional treatment.

And the professionals who do the research, provide treatment, advertise treatments and advocate for treatment funding have encouraged this focus. In the 70-some years since my mother’s Aunt Bessie was sent away to a psychiatric hospital in Maine, the proportion of the US population believed to suffer during our lifetime from what we call “mental illnesses” has mushroomed from less than 1 percent to roughly half.

Refocus: Churches Can Support Mental Health

Mental illnesses and their professional treatments have become the giant Easter egg in our thinking about ordinary suffering and mental health problems. The ordinary, healthful life represented by the child’s apple tree is appealing, but its fruit seems out of reach. And while we’re aware of the cozy warmth we can find in relationship with those to whom we belong, that idea is crowded away into a cramped corner of our imagination.

A sense of belonging is, however, a core element of good mental health. And belonging is one of the key attributes of a good church community.

Belonging is essential to mental health. (Photo from Tacoma Park church picnic is by Michele Joseph.)

Healthy living — good foods, appropriate exercise, meaningful work, living in accord with our sense of purpose — is also essential to mental health. All of these fall readily under the umbrella of good Christian living, something our congregations can nurture in us all.

Image by Rudy Anderson from Pixabay

What churches aren’t equipped to do is deal with long lists of diagnoses and brilliantly colored assortments of pills. And that’s fine. Because those are much less essential to mental health than our current, illusory focus would seem to make them. We’ve become focused on identifying one of hundreds of mental illness diagnostic labels for emotional pain and pushing the sufferer toward palliative medicines. In so doing, we’ve lost focus on the many gifts God has provided us to support one another in good mental health.

In this season of Easter celebration, let’s stay focused on what brings us life. Meaning, belonging, purpose, value, and hope — these are the tools we as God’s people use to support mental health in one another. Medicines and diagnoses have their place, but their place must be shrunk to an appropriate size in our thinking. Like the child’s giant Easter egg, they must not take over the place that warm relationships and healthy living are intended to fill.

If 2021 Is Just as Tough, What Will Keep You Going?

What if 2021 is no better than 2020? What then?

The experience of American prisoners of war says: even if 2021 is no better, we can still be okay. But we will only be okay is if we don’t expect our circumstances to be okay.

That sounds odd, doesn’t it. Surely people need to expect good things. Surely we need to believe in a better time ahead. Surely people need hope.

And we do need hope. The challenge is that while people need hope, we don’t need false hope.

False hope works like the real thing at first. It focuses us on a goal, and motivates our action. It steels our resolve in the face of difficulties.

Without Hope, We Die

Without hope, people die. Scripture tells us “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Pr. 29:18, KJV). The experience of US POWs during the Vietnam conflict starkly demonstrates both that truth and the devastating impact of false hope based on unrealistic vision.

Several thousand US servicemen were taken prisoner during that conflict. Only 591 returned home, after having endured many years of torture, starvation and solitary confinement. James Stockdale, a US Navy Vice Admiral who held as a POW for nearly 8 years, says it was the optimists who died.

He told author Jim Collins: “they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

False Hope is a Killer

“There was a lot of damage done by optimists,” Stockdale told a graduating class at West Point. “Problem is, some people believe what professional optimists are passing out and come unglued when their predictions don’t work out.”

The optimists in the camps lived on false hope that they would be liberated within a specific time frame. As their false hope was repeatedly dashed, they found themselves on an emotional roller coaster of desires and wishful thinking that, in Stockdale’s opinion, eventually caused them to lose their ability to hope and their reason to live.

Stockdale saw in his comrades who survived the same hope that they would eventually be freed. But the survivors grounded their hope in a realistic understanding of the brutal setting they would have to survive. As he told Collins: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

COVID Has Wrecked Many Hopes

COVID has become a crucible for the quality of our own hopes. Career advancement, Pinterest-perfect homes, honor roll students … these hoped-for and worked-for goals have been snatched from our reach. Hopes that seemed entirely reasonable before the virus reached the US have become, during the pandemic, impossible expectations. “I hope to see my out-of-state friend over the holidays.” “I hope to succeed in my new career.” “I hope to be by my mother’s side when she dies.”

Many of the objects of our hopes have been snatched beyond our reach at this time. And some of us are all too aware that the opportunity missed today can become the fork that changes the path of a life. It becomes difficult to hope when we can’t see a reliable future.

The Bible describes a reliable future, but it is not always as clearly visible as we might prefer. God says that God knows God’s own plans for us: “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11 NIV).  We hear those words and imagine our own vision of prosperity – something we saw on a screen or heard from a platform – and then rush at the vision we have created, trusting it as our hope and future. When the vision is snatched away, so, too, is our hope.

How Do You Advance When Hope Isn’t In View?

That’s what happened in 2020. Just about every vision we had imagined was snatched from us. And we forgot how to walk in a dark and foggy night.

God warns us that the path is not clear and our vision fogged. We see imperfectly and only in part, “through a glass, darkly,” in the old King James language (1 Cor 13:12). So God recommends a strategy for moving forward in uncertainty: watching where the light of the Word shines a safe footing for the next step through the darkness, and only advancing as far as that light illuminates (Ps. 119:105).

Of course, it’s not easy to take life that slowly in the 21st century West. We have become so used to big stories of big achievements that it is easy for us to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10).

Small Steps Toward an Unseen Goal

In these times with their many restrictions, we still have many seemingly small opportunities to share kindness, peace, love with those around us whose hope is waning. In these times when there seem to be no large opportunities, God has given us the opportunity to “do small things with great love” (in the words of Mother Teresa). And as we do so, this time of small beginnings might build us together with many others who do not yet hope in Christ into a home where God’s spirit might dwell (Eph. 2:22).

We can accept the many difficulties COVID has presented and may continue to present, because we know that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5: 3-4).

Whether 2021 brings a happy new year or new challenges, it brings us reason for real hope.

Hopeful new year, everyone.

More reading

Here are a couple essays I found interesting while writing this post:

An essay in the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge blog discusses how the POW experience of true and false hope bears on business leadership during COVID.

Soldiers with This Trait are Survivors details the patterns of thinking and perception that allow for sustained hope based in reality.


One Thing I Learned in the Pandemic Year

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Image from Pixabay.com

Who hasn’t wanted to hide this year? Who didn’t feel the sting of failed hopes and expectations?

Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl survived Nazi prison camps in large part because of his determination to accomplish what he knew life expected from him: the completion of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and the development of his therapeutic method. That book is, by the way, considerably more powerful for its use of prison camp stories to demonstrate the use of Frankl’s therapies, which depend on the individual’s recognition of the meaning and purpose to be found in the life they have been given.

What did life expect of you in 2020? What is it expecting of you as you look into 2021 — which is likely to hold challenges for many months yet?

One of the things I learned in 2020, as fundraiser for a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities, is that many people become much more generous when they find their circumstances more precarious. As one donor told a colleague in offering his gift, “I have it today, so I should do something helpful with it.” In 2021, I will be responsible in my job for continuing to offer people the hope of doing something valuable, even during unpredictable times.

Outside of work, I see many opportunities to nurture friendships among other older, unmarried women who also are often overlooked. Much as I might expect life — and my married Christian friends — to “set the solitary into families,” as God says will happen (Ps. 68:6) it seems much more likely that we solitary will band together in God’s love to create care groups of our own. This is the life and the task that God has set before us, and as difficult as it may be, we are called to walk into it.

What did 2020 teach you? What opportunities do you see in 2021?

More Resources:

A collection of Viktor Frankl’s lectures was published in 2020 for the first time in English. Say Yes to Life (In Spite of Everything) is encouraging as we continue to live into uncertainty in 2021.

Free Resources: COVID and Mental Health Courses by University Instructors

FutureLearn in the UK offers a wide range of educational resources, often free. You can enroll now, at no cost, in their three-week online course “COVID-19: Psychological Impact, Wellbeing and Mental Health.” The self-paced course is presented by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust and is offered in English.

The University of Toronto is offering a three-hour course titled Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19. Psychology professor Steve Joordens hopes the class will help people understand and control the anxiety many are suffering. The class is offered in English, with subtitling available in Arabic, French, Portuguese (European), Chinese (Simplified), Italian, Vietnamese, Korean, German, Russian, Turkish, Spanish, English, and Hungarian

‘How Are You?’ Umm … What to Say?

Image from Pixabay.com

The holiday lights aren’t uplifting the way you hoped. The prospect of a COVID Christmas is leaving the kids low. And then there’s all the stress you’re carrying from trying to work and parent and partner in a house that’s organized for after hours activities, not the entire day every day.

And someone asks: “How are you?”

The automatic “Fine” would fall flat. Plus it’s patently untrue.

What do you say? Your answer could help market my forthcoming book on how faith communities best support people in times of mental health challenges. Add your answers below … we definitely need some new ones.