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Life is Blank. In Search of Hope.

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 Fern Spiralstudents 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.

Allison Chubb

About Allison Chubb

Allison Chubb is a chaplain at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba and a youth coordinator for new Canadians in downtown Winnipeg. She is particularly interested in how youth engage what Robert Webber called “ancient-future worship,” those rituals of old practiced in a postmodern context where a new generation finds itself searching for rootedness. She describes herself as “paid to hang out with God and hang out with people.” On the side she loves to create by cooking, gardening, crafting, and balloon-sculpting.

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8 Responses to Life is Blank. In Search of Hope.

  1. Great article. Thank you.

  2. Very well written and inspiring. As a counselor I can understand the feeling of powerlessness when faced with such issues. It is so nice however to know that courageous people in the church are willing to face this feeling and truly be there, as it truly is the best thing one can do in most cases.

  3. Brilliant. We need to have openness about mental health.
    One thought: we do have to know our abilities and limitations, and the referral is essential – when the referral is possible. Mental health resources in rural communities are woefully lacking, and sometimes the clergy are the ones getting called from police/hospitals/etc. to attempt to assist, whether they have training or not.

    • Allison Chubb

      Laura: Absolutely, you are right. And rural or not, often we are the ones who have and established relationship and trust. Relationship cannot be professionalized!

  4. One of the challenges with immediately wanting to refer someone to mental health professionals is that many people, especially those in LGBTQ communities don’t trust mental health providers.

    Sometimes the relationship with a priest, chaplain, or other pastoral care person is the only relationship that comes close to counselling where a person feels comfortable enough to talk.

    If a timely referral to a mental health practitioner is not possible due to wait times I think it’s important for pastoral care networking to be happening so that if one person doesn’t have the skills, experience, or, for other reasons, is unable to provide ongoing support that there is the possibility for the person in need to receive necessary support.

  5. Allison Chubb

    Talia: absolutely. I think there are actually more of these populations who fall through the cracks for one reason or another than we realize. But even for those who are engaged in a healthy relationship with the healthcare system, community and belonging are needed beyond what healthcare can or should provide. There’s a community down the street from me that does this particularly well- a house church of sorts that welcomes a wide variety of people who are struggling for a potluck every week. Where else does that kind of belonging happen?

  6. Thanks for this post. I’m a teacher at high school and I see much the same as you do with my students. Mental health issues are so endemic at our school that the question isn’t, if we’ll have a student struggling with anxiety or depression, but who is currently, especially among our seniors. I suspect that the problem among university students is aggravated by leaving familiar surroundings, but it is bad enough where I am.

    I did want to pick up on your comments about the importance of hospitality and hope. I’ve seen this again and again both in my classroom and in the extra-curricular group I run. I’ll refer my students to guidance or professional help when I need to (there is no substitute for that medical and practical assitance), but, so often, in the cases where the problems are already known or are slowly emerging, it is also important for those who are struggling to know there is a safe place for them. It can be something as simple as a daily greeting. It could involve simply being with them in their journey. My rule is that my students can share where they are or not, but they can always expect a positive welcome. That, regardless of the hard medical issues, is where hope can begin when there is one place where one is welcome.

  7. Allison Chubb

    Phil, thank-you for being so intentional with students in this way. You are absolutely right- being a place of welcome can be remarkably simple sometimes. May you be a blessing beyond what you expect!

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