They say that the Manitoba winds can drive a person insane. That because of the wind, we have some of the highest rates of mental illness in our country. But I happen to have heard the same thing about the British Colombian rains or the Ontario grey winters or the Arctic darkness. The truth is, our communities are experiencing alarming rates of depression, anxiety, and other kinds of mental illness across the country.
The most common time for mental illnesses to appear is ages 18-22: college. Sometimes students feel reprieve as the days get longer and the winds calm, but many do not. While their colleagues are liberated to enjoy the beautiful spring weather, faculty, students and staff at the university who struggle with mental illness are left indoors with their own darkness. I have stopped trying to count the numbers.
University resources for dealing with mental health crises among students are completely maxed out, and the same is true at institutions across the country. The situation for staff and faculty is even worse. Many students, living in residence and far from home, simply disappear into the maze of classrooms and offices that make up our sprawling campus, fighting their demons alone until something breaks inside. Tragically, they often don’t cross my radar until it’s almost too late.
This should not be.
We should not have young people living in such pain and confusion, isolated and far away from people who love them. Sometimes, I hear the words of the Psalmist echoing in my mind: “Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry? Be gracious to your servants. Lord, why have you rejected me? Why have you hidden your face from me?” (90, 88) Often, the people coming in and out of my life feel far away from their very surroundings, so it is no surprise that God also feels far away. They have no words to pray. Life is blank. Or: life is chaos. Where is God in the blankness and the chaos, I wonder?
I know that my colleagues in parish ministry have people with these very questions coming through their doors. Broken, frustrated, disillusioned with “the system,” men, women, and young people living with mental illness come through our parishes with nearly the same frequency as they come through my office. These are the treasures of the Church given to us in our time and place. How will we respond?
I am not a counsellor or a psychiatrist, and chances are good that you aren’t either. It’s important to know where our abilities begin and end and to have referral processes in place. But in the last several decades, our communities have made a grave mistake by continually handing off the hurting ones among us to “the professionals.” Very often- most often, perhaps- those who come through our doors are not here for professional help. What they seek is hospitality and belonging and hope. And that, my friends, is what we do.
One priest I know has responded to the increased need in her community by taking a counselling certificate and getting extra training in dealing with crisis and trauma. Another has started a regular support group to which he invites a spectrum of speakers and mental health professionals. One large congregation has groups for those dealing with specific life crises. On the other hand, I know of another who has removed a woman struggling with depression from his congregation because he felt she didn’t belong there.
Like all of life’s big questions, there is no easy answer to mental illness. It is deep and varied in its scope. But because those who live with this particular kind of darkness will always be among us- as Jesus says of the poor- we have a responsibility to decide how we will respond as the family of Christ. In my work, it involves a lot of listening. It means working hard to include and welcome and offer hope. It also means being as familiar as possible with the resources available for students and staff and advocating for better care. In communities across Canada, resources for people living with a mental illness are notoriously difficult to access. If these are the vulnerable and forgotten ones of our culture, what can we do to help them have a voice? To get access to the healthcare and other resources they need?
Finally, what does it mean to provide a place of belonging and hope for people living with mental illness? Hospitality is one of our most cherished Christian traditions. For some of our brothers and sisters, feeling accepted and wanted takes much longer than it does for others. If you are anything like me, being patient with such people can be difficult. But our communities may be one of the only places such people find that kind of acceptance (small communities can be particularly good at this!) I’m reminded of some of the marginalized populations welcomed by the early church: widows, orphans, and strangers.
Often, when someone is feeling particularly discouraged or hopeless, I’ll invite him or her to spend time in the Psalms. Our tradition is rich with the words of those who’ve come before us, naming the hopes and fears of many generations. Often, when a person has no words to speak to God or to name hope, words can be found in the liturgy or in Psalter: “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold” (71). May our communities become places of safety and homecoming for our brothers and sisters living with mental illness.