You know how you sometimes stumble across stuff you can’t even imagine exists? I recently discovered a wealth of excellent free resources mental health resources at Everett Worthington‘s website at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Worthington is an emeritus professor of psychology whose specialty is in the universe called “positive psychology.” That is to say: his research focuses on how we live at our best, not the range of difficulties we sometimes encounter.
A lot of “positive psychology” rubs me the wrong way. I generally find myself nodding along with Barbara Ehrenreich, who describes enforced optimism as an addictive drug whose highs drive us to dangerous and unwise choices, both as individuals and as a culture.
So imagine my surprise when I found a set of resources that were born in the “positive psychology” universe and were actually helpful. In the course of researching my own upcoming book on how churches can best support people with mental health diagnoses, I discovered Worthington’s helpful, evidence-based mental health resources developed for churches and Christian organizations. And they’re distributed free.
Worthington’s own research, over his long professional career, has included studying how people succeed in forgiving others and in cultivating such virtues as humility and patience. He’s written more than 20 books published on conservative Christian houses such as Intervarsity Press and Baker Books and by the highly regarded Templeton Foundation for religion research. The most recent of these, The Science of Forgiveness (April 2020) is a 58-page review of academic research studies on forgiveness designed to assist news reporters.
Worthington is committed to free distribution of his ideas, in the old academic tradition. Once he’s established, through adequate peer-reviewed research, that an approach works, he offers the workbooks as shareables for DIY counseling or peer-led groups.
I’ve been working through one of the books, and really appreciate it. Part of what surprises me is that the self-directed approach seems mostly more effective for me than in-person counseling — maybe because I can stop processing a difficult experience when it overwhelms and then return later, with no need to think about fully utilizing my 50-minute appointment.
I’m also appreciative that I can recognize in this workbook some strategies used by Christians worldwide to successfully overcome anger and unforgiveness. So, for instance, one exercise that Worthington prescribes for releasing unforgiveness is also described in Liberian war refugee Marcus Doe’s memoir Catching Ricebirds. That is to say: it is part of a forgiveness “toolkit” that is well-established in long-standing, global Christian practice.
Learn more at Everett Worthington’s website, and download some of his FREE evidence-based tools now to cultivate forgiveness, patience, and humility in your life.
PS: Don’t be fooled! Not by the lack of marketing. Or the fact that he gives them away for free. Or even the covers that look more like your church bulletin than a serious mental health tool. These are the real deal. Go to his website and download one to try today!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, if those trees aren’t rooted on a rock, I don’t know what would be. Kamen Brela juts out of the Adriatic Sea on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. This image, which popped up in my browser today, took me back to last week’s post about trees that manage to thrive despite their challenging settings — and even depend on the challenging setting to remain alive.
The image reminded me of the “islands” I saw in Fundy Bay, a day or so northeast of me. When Fundy’s dramatic tides drop to low, the islands become giant’s flowerpots, with trees as the “flowers” above.
I imagine the challenging first months and years for these trees. A seed found enough moisture to germinate … it found a tiny bit of moss or humus to grant it a bit of nourishment … and it faithfully depended on God’s provision of each next tiny bit of water and nourishment as it slowly grew to its full heights.
Those of us who have lived through remarkable challenges are as remarkable as those trees. We may not have known that God made sure we were provided what we’d need to grow. We may be surrounded by people — church people, counselor people — who are intent on “healing” us and “delivering” us from the very challenging rock in which God has taught us to root our lives.
Believe God. A tree rooted in a rock is remarkable. God made your life in this place possible. Stand tall.
People who go to church usually have better mental health than people who don’t. Almost half of people facing a mental illness crisis turn to the church first. Still …
People Fear Stigma and Discrimination, Even at Church
Lots of people are worried that people at church will discriminate against them if they know about their mental illness. In the very place where everyone wants an authentic community, many people with mental illnesses are living behind masks.
Pat Deegan, who has schizophrenia, owns a mental health consulting firm and teaches at Dartmouth medical school. She recently blogged about “being normal.” For us of faith, the crux comes when she describes what “recovery” from a “mental illness” should look like:
… recovery is not about becoming normal. The goal of recovery is to become the precious gift that we were born to become. …The goal of our recovery is to become the unique, never-to-be repeated gift that we are.
A study from a surprising source — The London School of Economics — adds to the evidence that involvement with a faith community is good for you. The four-year study found faith community involvement was better at alleviating depression than:
The study looked at depressed European adults aged 50 and up.
Epidemiologist Dr Mauricio Avendano said it was unclear why religious activity was associated with long-term happiness. Options he suggested included:
Support during periods of illness
A sense of community and belonging
Reduction in social isolation
Activities that were rewarding, vs. political and volunteer work where there might be high effort without clear benefits
Among other interesting study findings: depression in Europe has less to do with the weather (often hypothesized to result in depression in Scandanavia) and more to do with such issues as economic well-being or social relationships/