I don’t write poetry or even read it, but for some reason in the last month I’ve been gifted four volumes of poems. And my tentative dips into them revived my memory of the way poems can carry a huge weight of thought and feeling in a dense mass of just a few carefully chosen words.
So when I tried to write about my friend’s involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, I couldn’t find any way to shape my thoughts but a poem.
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.
Just heard a great talk about hearing voices by Dr. John Swinton (chair of the Center for Spirituality, Health and Disability at the University of Aberdeen. (Pathways to Promise conference, Houston, TX, offered online this year and attended by more than 2,600 worldwide, including me.)
It turns out that voice hearing is a very common experience. It occurs in 5-28% of the non-diagnosed population. And voice hearing is not typically disabling in itself, but becomes disabling in countries — like the US — where it’s treated as an illness, not an experience.
[One of the odd cross-cultural differences is that in the US, where we treat voice hearing as an illness, people tend to hear only negative, hectoring voices. In Ghana and India, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann found the voices heard were more often benign, encouraging or even playful.
In essence, the disability is social stigma, not the experience of what USD psychiatrists call psychosis. In this part of his talk, he drew on Luhrman’s cross-cultural research on the experience of voice-hearing, published in the Annual Review of Anthropology.
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.
The difficult emotional reactions to COVID uncertainty have led many — including this week the US Centers for Disease Control — to suggest we’re surfing a tidal wave of new mental illness, with depression and anxiety at dangerous crests.
Biological anthropology is responding with a different idea. Maybe the depression we’re seeing is a normal human response to adversity. Maybe ADHD and PTSD are likewise our bodies’ appropriate responses to certain environmental threats. Maybe we’re seeing symptoms of “mental illness” because we’re experiencing so much adversity in our environments.