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?
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.
That headline sounds too cynical to be true, doesn’t it? But check the financial incentives built into your new health insurance policy.
Would you trust your child’s rash to a discounted video-doctor? The WSJ suggests caution.
Do your health insurance company give a discount for using telemedicine instead of actually seeing a doctor? How successful do you think that will be? Check this article from the Wall Street Journal about how often those video providers provide wrong diagnoses of simple skin conditions.
Do you wonder about the “Ask-A-Nurse”service your health insurance company provides? Do you think you might find that it minimizes your medical concerns to maximize corporate profits?
The nurse I called failed to ask one key question (“How long have you had the symptoms?”) so that two months later, when I saw my doc after nearly fainting at the breakfast table, he told me he had both good and bad news. The bad news was that my red cell count was only 25% of normal. The good news was I’d effectively lived a heart and lung stress test for months. It took multiple doctor’s visits over months to treat my severe anemia. But the “Ask A Nurse” service had helpfully postponed treatment costs into the insurer’s next financial quarter.
Do you dare to use the “health management tools” your health insurance company offers? Or do you suspect that these will become just another source of Personal Health Information for the insurer to mine, a means to “more accurately” set your rates? Have you ever noticed that your insurer knows more about your medical history than your doctor does? That when you start a new insurance plan, your PHI travels to the insurer via some mysterious electronic corridor of past payment and risk information … but when you got to the new doctor that your new insurer’s new network requires (if you want the rate discount), you need to fill out a medical history?
And then insurers wonder why patients won’t allow them to serve as health care coordinators.
Short answer: Because patients want our doctors to coordinate our health care. Doctors we see face-to-face.
God tells us, as His followers, to “heal the sick … and and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9).
How can we restyle our systems of health care so both doctors and patients can again experience God’s kingdom life in the act of healing?
Don’t take this as a statement about you. It’s just something I’m noticing about me. What sometimes looks like “ADHD” might just be me choosing to do what I enjoy more right now instead of what’s really important. That makes it self-indulgence, not a mental health disorder.
“Must Do!” … but will I prioritize them?
Today, my “To Do” list had only 3 “Must Do!” items on it. It’s 1:30 p.m., which means I’m more than 6 hours into the day. And only 1 of those 3 “Must Do!” items is complete.
Top “priorities” — my “shiny squirrels”
What I’ve prioritized instead of my “Must Do!” list are the various “shiny squirrels” I’ve chased so far today. Continue reading →
I was in a Sunday school class where I was taught that the right answer to difficult circumstances was to thank God for them. The specific example from the Kay Arthur text, which drew on Bill Bright’s experience in Campus Crusade (now known as Cru), was a girl depressed after her fiance died in a car crash. According to Bright, her depression vanished as soon as she learned to thank God for the car crash and her fiance’s death.
That sounds a bit crazy to me. Also a bit off the mark. I respect God’s power, but I’m not sure I’m ready to blame God for creating evil, much less thank God for doing it. That feels to me like the worst kind of taking God’s name in vain.
What the instructor had no way of knowing was that I was sitting in the class suffering the side effects of a medication that was clearly the wrong medication for me. It was causing me to believe that God was evil and that the Bible was just a pack of lies God had given us trying to convince us God was other than God actually is.
If I believed the instructor’s guidance, my meds-induced psychosis would have lifted as soon as I thanked God for being psychotic.
Besides, I couldn’t possibly thank a God that (buried somewhere deep in more than 20 prior years of Christian living) I knew was good for putting me in (what I desperately hoped was) a temporary meds-induced state where I was entirely convinced God was evil. Why would God want me to believe that God is evil? This was evil itself at work. To thank God for it would be the most horrible form of taking God’s name in vain.
Happily, God never suggests we do such a thing. God urges us to remain thankful for whatever good we can see and find during trying times. Sometimes, that good may seem quite small. So we say:
Thank you, God, for making it possible for me to put one foot in front of another again today.
Thank you, God, for the blue heron I can see fishing in the lake right now.
Thank you, God, for an apartment I can afford.
Thank you, God, for extra hours (=extra money) this week.
Thank you, God, for a (new) pastor at my (new) church who notices that I’m not there on Sunday and actually calls!
Thank you, God, for a $12.99 job interview dress that matches accessories I already own.
Thank you, God, for phone calls from friends.
But never “Thank you, God, for the sin and failures and disaster that has made such huge and difficult changes in my life.” Just thank you that God, being God, is able to take sin and disaster — which God neither authors nor approves — and work them together for good on the path I’m walking because I am among those who are called according to God’s purposes.
God is good and God is with us. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us. Even when it is difficult to see God along the path we are walking, God is present in all of the good we encounter and God does not abandon us in all of the evil we encounter.
So should we thank God for mental illness? If you think you should thank God for cancer or kidney failure or a blown rotator cuff, then I’d say sure.
But if you think you should only thank God for being present in love and care when you suffer, and teaching you lessons you might not have learned without suffering … then I’d say it’s not the illness for which you are grateful. It’s God.