May 29, 2022

Alphabet Soup for the Mental Health Soul” — Rev. Chelsea Page

Let me tell you a story.

Heman the Ezrahite was very, very sad. Day after day he poured out his feelings of sadness, isolation, anger, abandonment, mistrust, spiritual emptiness and hopelessness. Living did not seem like a good option because he felt like he was already dead. What energy he had left for living was consumed with anxiety and hopeless, racing thoughts. So he wrote them all down, never knowing if his words would last, thinking he was the only one to feel his way. Never knowing that his experience was so relatable, that his words would still be sung to this day. Heman the Ezrahite who wrote Psalm 88 probably had clinical depression.

There is another story. An elderly king named Saul was said to be tormented by “an evil spirit from the Lord.” In the face of the king’s terrible rages, the people around him pulled away in alarm and fear, unsure how to react to his troubled behavior. People often try to explain behaviors they do not understand by labeling them as an “evil spirit” or as a punishment from God. Without science to diagnose and treat his condition, the king’s career and legacy were on a path of destruction, taking his people down with him. King Saul probably had a brain condition such as dementia or possibly even an unrecognized mental illness.

Let me tell you another story. There was a jailer who had inflicted great wounds on other human beings. His work at the Philippian prison caused him so much toxic stress that he lived with panic and anxiety all the time. Consumed by guilt over the violence he had participated in, he was always on edge, looking behind him, waiting for the other shoe to drop. This jailer may have been experiencing moral injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. So when he made a big mistake at the jail, a mistake with disastrous consequences for his employer, he was sure there would be no forgiveness. The shame would be unending. With his trauma activated, he knew his body could not survive the kind of punishment he had dealt out. So he made plans to end his own life through suicide.

Now let’s hear a more modern story. In 2019, the COVID pandemic arrived and, in a few short years, caused levels of anxiety and depression to skyrocket. Since the pandemic, rates of mental illness have doubled, from 1 in 5 American adults to 2 in 5 American adults. According to the CDC, ten percent of high school students tried to end their own lives in the past several years, and 37% reported that they were experiencing poor mental health at least most of the time. But we can tell a new story. Along with these rising numbers, we are seeing a growing awareness and more people breaking the silence about mental health. In the United Church of Christ, forty congregations so far have studied and discerned to begin a mental health ministry and undertake something called a WISE covenant. WISE congregations work to become more Welcoming of those living with mental health challenges, to expand their Inclusion of those who are living with mental health challenges, to be Supportive of all who are affected by mental health conditions, and to Engage in advocacy to increase resources and end the stigma around mental health challenges. Thank goodness there have been WISE churches existing from the very beginning of Christianity. When the jailer in Philippi planned to end his own life, the apostles Paul and Silas were there to intervene. They say “stop, do not harm yourself, for we all are here.” They stay by his side although he had imprisoned them, they give him the opportunity to wash and tend the wounds that he had placed in their bodies. They work with him to open up a new phase in his life was there is food, family, healing and redemption. The community they provided saved his life.

In the secular realm, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (or NAMI) trains ordinary people out in the community to recognize and help each other to live beyond their thoughts of suicide. This QPR training is free and widely available, teaching people to recognize the early warning signs of suicide in their everyday relationships and personally intervene. When a person dies by suicide, the window of time between when the person makes the decision and when they act to end their life is often very short, even ten minutes or less. But we can tell a new story. Psalm 88 testifies to Heman the Ezrahite’s incredible ability to talk to God even in terrible circumstances. He had the power to cling to the mystery that held him and surrounded him, even when he could not feel that Divine presence. When a person who is suicidal is invited to share openly about their feelings and thoughts of suicide, they can be connected with a hotline, phone app, or crisis team, who then have the opportunity to try to lead them through the moment of danger. When we gently ask if someone is thinking about suicide, we do not put the idea into their heads; rather, we gain the chance to persuade them that life can get better and help is available.

We all get stuck sometimes on negative thoughts about ourselves or on bad things that have happened to us, but if those thoughts keep you from living your life as you want to, or from being engaged with others, it might be time to seek out mental health care from a therapist or doctor. Most of us feel sad a few times each week, but if those sad feelings consistently interfere with your ability to maintain friendships, or to get your usual tasks done, or interfere with your sleep more nights than not, you likely could benefit from additional support. The people who most often miss this message are those who are 60 years old or older. They often dismiss their own mental health as unimportant, or see it as indulgent to seek mental health care. As rightly concerned as we are with our youth, according to the CDC, men who are 65 and older face the highest risk of suicide. The second most likely age group? Adults 85 and older, regardless of gender.

But we can tell a new story. Mental Health First Aid teaches a simple formula called ALGEE for supporting a person through a mental health challenge. ALGEE stands for

Assess what the person is experiencing

Listen patiently and without judgment

Give information about mental health recovery and how what the person is going through is common and treatable

Encourage professional help like seeking therapy

Encourage self help like reaching out to family and friends.

When the aging King Saul began to suffer from mental distress, he was introduced to a young man named David. David provided soothing music for the troubled king. But more importantly, he was caring and compassionate even in the face of Saul’s angry outbursts. As people of faith, we are called to listen and encourage those who are suffering from mental illness through no fault of their own.

ALGEE, QPR, WISE – a new alphabet soup of support and understanding is brewing for all of us who sometimes need help overcoming a mental health challenge. All of us can be part of the solution. So what story are you going to tell? A story of hopeless statistics, that the kids are not alright? Or a story of the moment when we decided as a society to become “wise” about mental health? Millions who have survived mental health crises and who navigate ongoing mental health challenges are living the story of recovery, and paying it forward by building communities that care. May we be part of this life-giving movement, an alphabet soup of:

truthful testimonies about suffering,

healing words spoken directly and gently,

and soothing songs that create hope and connection.


Thanks to Amy Spratling for contributing to this reflection.