Let’s Talk About Mental Health

mental healthIt’s been a year. It’s been a year since I quit my job as a special ed teacher one day, flew to Australia and shaved my head the next day, and got a tattoo three days later. I guess you can say, it’s been a year since my 2007 Britney Spears moment. In this last year, I’ve learned a lot about myself, a lot about mental health, and a lot about society. And while the circumstances surrounding the whole situation weren’t ideal, I think it was necessary for me. I think I really needed to lose it in order to really find myself again. That’s what this whole last year has been. And it’s been incredible. Though I wouldn’t say this is the happiest I’ve ever been—I’ve definitely had times in life when I was happier—I can honestly say this is the most peace I can remember feeling. I’ll take peace over anything.

I’ve learned that a lot of people—maybe even most people— place their identity in their job. It’s not what they do; it’s who they are. While I knew that intellectually, I didn’t think I would become one of those people. But I did. And because being a teacher became my identity, the thought of losing that title was synonymous to losing myself. So I stayed. I spent the weeks looking forward to Friday and spent the weekends dreading Monday’s inevitability. I was drowning in a sea of work and stress, along with growing anxiety and depression, all made worse by undiagnosed burnout. I receive a short reprieve on the weekend, but I knew the waves were coming again Monday. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. So I left. Some people may say (and have said), “That’s why it’s called ‘work’. That’s just reality.” Well, I call BS. Life is too short to dread five days out of a seven-day week. Do what you love. Love what you do. If not, don’t do it.

When I came back from Australia, I met up with a lot of different people and communicated with several people via phone and/or social media. I quickly discovered that so many others were suffering alone also, on the brink of their own mental breakdown. And I can’t help but think that we as a society have to do better. Though the stigma behind seeking mental health help is weakening, it’s definitely still there. Especially for men. For example, if someone were to post that they’re going to work on their physical health by eating right and working out, what is the response? Inevitably that statement is met with tons of “likes” and “loves” and “way to go” comments and “we’re rooting for you” comments. Now, if someone were to post that they’re going to work on their mental health by seeking counseling, what is the response? Likely, a post like that would be met with “sad” and “wow” reactions and “hope you’re doing ok” comments and “praying for you” comments. Seeking mental health isn’t celebrated nearly as enthusiastically as seeking physical health. That absolutely needs to change. To be fair, it is changing, but much work still needs to be done.

I saw a counselor for about six months and started taking an antidepressant in January, neither of which I am even remotely ashamed. Nor should I be. My only regret is not doing it sooner. After about a month on the meds I remember telling my counselor, “I can’t believe this is how ‘normal’ people feel all the time!” Now, I can already hear some of the comments from some people. “But shouldn’t you just trust God to heal you?” While comments like that are well-meaning, it’s also comments like that that can cause people to die by suicide. I don’t doubt that God can heal depression, anxiety, or anything else for that matter. And I know He does. But I also know that sometimes He doesn’t. I don’t understand why He chooses to heal sometimes and sometimes chooses not to; maybe that’s something I’ll just ask Him one day. What I also know is that He pointed me to a counselor who was awesome for me. He provided an empathetic doctor who listened to me, heard me, saw me, and prescribed me meds. He gave scientists and pharmacologists the knowledge to create the antidepressants. The fact that the first antidepressant I tried worked for me was a miracle in and of itself—most people go through several before they find one that works for them. So, just because He didn’t “heal” me, doesn’t mean He isn’t at work in my life still. Sometimes we ask for a miracle and He sends us people.

If you or anyone else is in need of mental health help, seek it out. It’s out there. And it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. I went to a non-profit counseling service that was free and just took donations, but donations weren’t a requirement to getting treatment. And my meds cost about $14 a month with no insurance. There is no shame in seeking help. And on the flip side, if someone opens up about wanting to better their mental health, think about how you would react if they were wanting to better their physical health, and react the same way. It’s ok to seek help. In many cases it’s necessary to seek help.

Whole Foods

It’s no secret. Whole foods are better for you than processed foods are. Research has proven this time and time again, and in our culture, this is relatively old news. So why, in light of all of these studies and facts, are we, as a country, still more obese than ever? Well for starters, processed food and fast food is simply more convenient; it takes less time to prepare (or order) this food than to take the time to make most whole foods. Also, a lot of times, whole foods and “healthy foods” just don’t taste as good as salty, fatty, processed foods. But then there are those people who do eat healthy foods and still gain weight. What’s up with that? Well, working out is still necessary, even when eating the right foods.

This past week, my pastor used this theme as a parallel to our spiritual lives, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. I was super convicted because I love to read. I’m almost prideful in how many books I read in a given month. Nerdy, I know, but it’s the truth. After listening to this sermon, I realized that so many people in our culture, me being one of the biggest culprits, consume so much processed spiritual food and not nearly enough whole food. Whole spiritual food is nothing more than raw Scripture. Processed spiritual food includes Christian books, podcasts, sermons, etc. Scripture has been processed and prepared for our consumption by the author, pastor, or whoever else is interpreting it for us.

Just as we long for the convenience of processed/fast food, we gravitate toward these books and podcasts because they’re convenient. They’re already processed and made ready to consume. But what happens is we become addicted to their convenience and consume more and more of it until we’re fat with more knowledge than we know what do with. If we just take the time and read Scripture, we see that, while the list of “ingredients” or “usable” pieces of information may be fewer, the quality and richness is so much more than the processed stuff. Quality vs. quantity.

Sometimes, as with health foods, Scripture just isn’t as appetizing as a deliciously fatty Donald Miller book. Now, don’t get me wrong; I love Donald Miller books, but I also love cheesecake. And I can’t live on cheesecake. Wish I could. But what’s true about health food is also true about Scripture. Sometimes, it can be bland and boring. I’d vouch for that. But it’s what’s best for us. It sustains us. It keeps us going longer than any processed or fast food can. And every once in a while, a food tastes so good, we’d be surprised it was healthy. Same can be said about Scripture.

But even if we read Scripture all day every day, we can still become “spiritually fat”. The first chapter in James, verses 14-26, talks about how faith and deeds must coincide. We have to not only consume Scripture, but we must also “work out” our faith. Our deeds should be a natural reaction to what we know and believe. If we just know it and don’t do it, we’re just spiritually fat and useless. But we have to be careful not to become weak, tired, worn out, and spiritually anorexic. That is, we do, do, do, but we never take the time to feed ourselves spiritually. There has to be a balance.

So, with all this said, should we just throw out all our Christian books, stop listening to podcasts and sermons, and stop reading blogs? Well, no. It’s not terrible to have fast food every once in a while, or splurge on that cheesecake. Sure. Go for it. But we can’t live on the stuff. If our lives consist of more processed, fast food than whole foods, sure we’ll survive. But think of the health costs. Think of how much healthier your life could be if it consisted primarily of whole foods. It takes discipline, just like eating right. But with consistency, the benefits will undoubtedly follow.  Commit to being spiritually fit instead of spiritually fat. Eat more whole food.

Here’s the sermon that inspired all of this. It’s the one titled “Rooted”: http://www.gracepoint.org/index.cfm/pageid/2159/index.html