More than platitudes on mental health

Not Quite Fine- Mental Health, Faith and Showing Up for One Another by Carlene Hill Byron.

I met a former student for coffee, and our talk turned to the mental health challenges she’d navigated during her teen years. Only vaguely aware of her struggle, I appreciated her willingness to tell me about it and expressed the hope that she would continue to find the right balance of medication and therapy to keep her stable.

I asked if she had found support in a faith community. She had not, in great part because of religious trauma she’d experienced years earlier, when her pastor shared the story of someone possessed with “the demon of suicide.” Because of her own struggle with suicide ideation, this young person internalized the pastor’s judgment, as well as his insistence that with enough prayer, everything — including her overwhelming anxiety — might be healed.

“The only thing the church offered me was platitudes,” she said. What she needed was relationships and connections to resources, including the medication that alleviated her anxiety.

Carlene Hill Byron’s new book, Not Quite Fine, tells stories similar to what my former student experienced: times when church leadership and laity handled a congregant’s (or their own) mental health challenges poorly, sometimes causing more harm. Byron brings a message of hope, asserting that the body of Christ can face these challenges by offering belonging and purpose to those who have mental health problems. (Byron prefers not to use the term mental illness, for a number of reasons she outlines in the book. I am honoring that preference here.)

Indeed, Byron writes, God has been preparing us to “offer meaning, purpose, belonging, value and hope to those who need them,” including those who suffer because of their mental health. Not Quite Fine — selected as Mennonite Church USA’s Common Read for April to June — points the way toward those preparations, providing tools and grace-filled insight for people of faith to express care for one another.

Byron writes as someone who has experienced a mental health diagnosis for almost 45 years and has integrated her faith-filled life into her understanding of mental health. Her work includes advocacy for people with disabilities, as well as serving as a spiritual wellness volunteer in the MaineHealth hospital system and as an educator through the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Not Quite Fine explores the stigma surrounding mental health problems and takes on the idea that we are in a mental health crisis because of cultural influences and the COVID pandemic. Byron notes that nearly one in six people are prescribed psychiatric medication and that half of all Americans will, at some point, face a mental illness diagnosis.

She wonders: Are we really ­facing a crisis, or has the definition of ­“normal” changed, so that emo­tions like grief and worry prompt ­diagnosis of a problem? There is good news in the awareness of mental health challenges, though, as we become more attuned to others’ suffering and more willing to sit with them in their sadness, whether they have a diagnosable mental illness or not.

Churches have not always been welcoming places, Byron says. Shepherding someone whose brain function is outside what we consider normal can be difficult. Church leaders may feel ill-equipped to navigate life with those facing mental health challenges. It can be uncomfortable to welcome someone whose behavior might disrupt worship and fellowship.
Still, including people with mental health problems is crucial. It affirms that all people are created in God’s image, even those whose brain function is altered by illness. She cites how we respond to people with physical challenges: We would never ostracize someone with cancer. We would pray for her, carry casseroles to her house, sit with her during treatment. We recognize that her life has meaning and that she deserves our deepest comfort and care. The same should be true of one with mental health problems.

Making space for and relying on the gifts of those with mental health challenges — including their leadership abilities — is good for the church.

Not Quite Fine includes a rich list of resources, in addition to advice on how caregivers can relate to mental health sufferers with humility, courage and grace. Byron’s entire book is filled with these qualities. She shows humility and courage in sharing her ­story and extends grace to others learning to navigate life with loved ones who suffer from mental health challenges. Her hope-filled book changed the way I understand mental health.

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