Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!
By Erin Counihan
I didn’t know how to talk about it.
I was finishing my last semester of seminary and looking for my first call, writing cover letters, updating my sad little website, and horrible pause-filled Skype-interviewing my future pastor heart out. I had worked up a standard set of non-threatening, but honest answers to the big theological issues I was certain to be asked on worship and sacraments and hospitality and marriage and ordination standards. I had most of the conversations covered and rehearsed, but all the while I carried a desperate stress and raging pounding in my heart because I didn’t know how to talk about the one thing that I thought would actually keep me from getting a job.
I am a parent to a kid with mental health needs.
I am a parent to a kid with mental health needs and I had no idea how to share this, how to talk about this, without judgement on my kid, or my own parenting, with kind, hopeful church people. With kind, hopeful church people looking for a pastor.
I didn’t know how to explain what our life is like. I didn’t know how to warn them that we would never be that perfect pastor’s family, not that the perfect pastor’s family really exists anywhere, but I wasn’t sure how to them that we weren’t even going to try to come anywhere close to fitting that image. I didn’t know how to share our history. I didn’t know how to clue them into our struggles. I didn’t know how to explain all the appointments and medications, diagnoses and treatment programs, behavior modifications and safety plans, but most of all the potential outbursts and disruptions. I didn’t know how to tell them about off-meds days, and didn’t want to scare them away from missing all her wonderful days. I didn’t want to say too much, in case they might see her as just her diagnoses, but I didn’t want to say too little and leave them unprepared or worse, to have my kid feel like it was a secret.
I didn’t know how to ask them for understanding and support, for middle of the night phone calls and weekend check-ins. I didn’t know how to tell them how very much I needed to find a church family where my kid could be her full self and be fully loved and celebrated. I didn’t know how to tell them how much I needed a church that wasn’t afraid of dealing with mental illness; a church that wasn’t afraid of dealing with us.
I never really figured out how to say all of that in a non-threatening, but honest way, so instead I blurted it all out, through some tears, during my on-site interview at the perfectly messy and lovely church that God picked out for us. Together, we are learning to be less afraid of that conversation. They’ve welcomed us and have already walked with us through the successes and struggles of our reality. And when much later, months after I was installed, on a bad week, I was brutally honest and told them my biggest fear, that the pastor’s kid would have a mental health emergency at church and it might cost that pastor her job, the now dear and beloved chair of that PNC told me in no uncertain terms: this church can handle that.
I’m still scared to talk about it. I am still worried that people will judge my kid. I am sure they’ll judge my parenting. And if I feel that way as the pastor, I can imagine there are others in our churches who feel that way too.
I don’t think we talk about mental health in church enough. I’m sure we don’t do enough to support individuals and families with mental health needs. I am not sure we know how. I know I don’t know how.
I want to do more. To help my own kid and all of God’s kids. So, I’ve asked a couple of friends a colleagues and perfect strangers to share their thoughts about what churches can be doing, what churches are doing, and what churches might do more of, to be more open to and supportive of those with mental health needs. I look forward to listening to their experiences, to hearing their suggestions, and just engaging in the conversation.
Because I’m trying, but I still don’t know how to talk about it.
Erin Counihan serves as pastor of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO and will be curating the NEXT Blog this month.