People Never Expect to Have a Mental Health Problem
I didn’t expect to hear that my twenty-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in a text message from my sister-in-law—who heard it from someone who came along with the person who came to the emergency department to evaluate Sarah before the hospital released her in the wee hours of the morning (that’s the garbled version I understood of the events that transpired).
It strikes me as a casually callous way to hear the news that Sarah’s life would forever change. One part of me felt immense relief that someone else could finally see that something had gone terribly wrong in Sarah’s mind. The other part of me reeled at the thought that I had missed what now seemed so glaringly obvious.
Admittedly, friends, former teachers, and church members who knew Sarah from high school had reached out to me in the weeks leading up to her diagnosis.
“What’s wrong with Sarah?” they would ask in Facebook messages and text messages. “Is there anything we could do to help?”
I loved them for their concern, and I sent suggestions of calling her, texting her or even sending cards to her. In retrospect, my suggestions seem analogous to fighting a forest fire with buckets of water. Of course, I asked my closest friends to pray for her—and those mighty prayers played a part in saving her life on at least one occasion.
How I wish that someone, anyone, would have looked at her behavior and asked me, “Have you considered that maybe Sarah has a mental illness?” I would have been angry at first—the shock of the suggestion snapping my emotions to full defensive position—but I would have pursued it.
Last October Sarah and I shared our journey on the blog, as part of the #write31days challenge. About two-thirds of the way through the series and before the post explaining about Sarah’s diagnosis went up, one of my roommates from college emailed me.
She had started reading the series midway through the month, and before even going back and starting from the beginning she wrote and asked if Sarah had seen someone to rule out bipolar disorder. My friend had no idea if Sarah and I were writing in ‘real time’ or describing something that had happened in the past, but she cared enough and knew enough about bipolar disorder to reach out and ask the hard questions.
Statistically speaking, with over 5.7 million persons over the age of 18 afflicted by bipolar disorder, more than one of our friends had to have known something about bipolar disorder and seen patterns in Sarah’s behavior that raised red flags.
But in today’s society, where we hesitate to tell someone they have toilet paper trailing from their heel after a visit to the bathroom because we fear offending them, maybe Christians feel it would prove too invasive to question a fellow church member’s mental hygiene.
I suggest that as Christians, we should all strive to speak to each other in love—even about the hard things like mental illness. Whilst Sarah struggled with depression and subsequent mania, I suffered from self-doubt. Perhaps her behavior was normal. Maybe this was just a bid for autonomy—normal behavior for an almost twenty-year-old.
A person in the midst of mania does uncharacteristic things—things that church members gossip about, cluck over and see as a sign that the afflicted person has denied his or her relationship with God. But let’s face it—Christianity doesn’t provide immunity from bipolar disorder or any other mental health issue.
I suggest that if a young adult you know starts to exhibit girl (or boy) gone wild behavior, you can do the following things.
1. Pray. Before diving in the turbid waters of discussing a possible mental health issue with someone else, ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It’s his job to convict. Not yours.
2. Educate yourself. Find out the basic signs or indicators of different mental illnesses. The NAMI website is a great place to start.
3. Pick your moment. Don’t bring up your concerns in public.
4. Don’t diagnose. Leave that to the professionals.
5. Start the conversation right. “I’ve noticed that ________ seems to be really struggling right now. Is there anything I can do to help?”
6. Remember that drug and alcohol use or addictions often mask mental health issues.
7. Use nonjudgmental phrases such as, “Have you ever considered that ______ might suffer from bipolar disorder?” If you have personal experience with someone who suffers, you might add additional details. “I know my daughter did a lot of crazy and hurtful things before she was diagnosed, and ________’s behavior reminds me a little of my daughter.”
8. Expect a reaction—most of us live comfortably in denial, so make sure you follow step number one. Don’t be offended if the person reacts with anger or hurt. I often wonder if any of my friends and acquaintances on Facebook saw what was happening and secretly diagnosed Sarah but failed to bring the subject up with me because they feared a negative reaction.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—there’s a difference between spiritual oppression and mental illness. God created us smart enough to find medicines and therapies for what ails our bodies—like tuberculosis, whooping cough and cancer. He also created us smart enough to find medicines and develop therapies for what ails our minds.