TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with depression and suicide.
This is the most difficult post I’ve ever had to write, and I’ve been putting it off for years.
Today would have been my friend Darlene’s 45th birthday, but her life was cut short after a long battle with clinical depression. I’d known Darlene for at least a year before she began to share anything about her struggle with me. She opened up even more during her last year of life, and I walked very closely with her in her final months. For the most part, Darlene’s condition was being managed well through counseling and medication. But in her last year or so, things slowly fell apart.
After graduating with her second seminary degree, Darlene was unable to find a job. Not just a job in ministry but any kind of job. So she would pick up small jobs here and there through a website called Task Rabbit. The lack of steady income soon resulted in an inability to continue with consistent treatment and medication. The lack of consistent treatment and medication eventually had a negative impact on her ability to seek full-time employment. It was a vicious cycle. And all of this was happening in the midst of life’s “normal” stressors. I’d suggested that she consider applying for disability, which she did. In the meantime, she continued trying to find free mental health services – which was nearly impossible. The State was her last resort. When she was evaluated by the State’s doctors, they all indicated in writing that her condition was severe. Yet, her disability claim was denied. This was literally the last straw for Darlene; the next month, she was dead. (If there was ever a moment to get on my soapbox, this is it. The system failed horribly in Darlene’s case. The mental health system in Illinois continues to be a mess because of our current budget crisis. How many other Darlenes are being neglected right now?)
Like most people who lose someone to suicide, I kept replaying our last conversations and Facebook messages over and over in my head; I couldn’t help but to wonder if I could have said or done something differently. Then, a few days after her death, a mutual friend shared with me a document that Darlene had left which included her final thoughts and wishes along with parting words to me and some others. After reading it, I realized that there really wasn’t anything that I – or any of her other friends – could have done. In fact, Darlene’s note to me revealed that I had done all that I could do and that it had meant the world to her.
One more thing that I can do today is share her story, in hopes of helping others. But who better to share Darlene’s story but Darlene? The following words are excerpts from the document I mentioned earlier:
“VERY IMPORTANT: I was honest and transparent about my battle with clinical depression over the last year. In part, because I needed to for my own survival, but also because of my belief that it is time for the stigma in society around the issue of mental illness to be gone. There is no shame in not being well – whether physical, mental or emotional.
I don’t want any of you to cover up my struggle. You would not dishonor me by speaking candidly about it, but your silence about it would not only dishonor me, but it will result in a missed opportunity to help others who struggle as I did.
So no shame, no shame, no shame! And if somehow my experience can be used to help someone else endure and hold on a little while longer and lessen the stigma of mental illness, that would be even better.
If anyone asks how I want to be remembered, please say the following about me:
– That I loved God even though I didn’t always understand God.
– That I always aimed for more and better; I did this through reading, connecting with people and pursuing as much education as I could.
– That I believed in being as honest about not only the good, but also the bad; not only the joys, but the sorrows and pain; and encouraged others to do the same.
– That I fought with all that I had to beat Major Clinical Depression. That I was not ashamed or embarrassed that I was plagued by this illness and longed for the stigma surrounding mental illness to be done away with so people can get the help they need to get through it.
– To get glimpses into my heart/mind, please view the things that I have written via blogging. Here are the links
www.rhetoricraceandreligion.blogspot.com (I made a few contributions here)
– That I believed in equality, diversity and inclusion for all types of people, including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning people (LGBTQ).
– I prioritized compassion and listening when ministering to others.”
Darlene had experienced the ugly side of (society and) the Church when it comes to dealing with mental illness. Her final blog post provides some helpful tips for how to engage with those in your life who are enduring mental illness. Below is an excerpt from that post – at the end are some suggested resources. My final words to you are this: if you or someone you know is struggling with any kind of mental illness, don’t go it alone. Please reach out.
So in thinking . . . about how we relate to each other, more specifically those who endure mental illness, I offer these alternative responses:
1. Give people permission and space to say “I’m not ok.”
2. Be a “safe person.” Meaning, when someone musters up courage to bare their souls and expose their hearts, be trustworthy, be loving and nonjudgmental and if you can, resourceful.
3. See pastors as “people who pastor” rather than “pastors who are people.” There is a difference. If pastor was no longer the profession, she/he would still be a person. Experientially I have been a staff minister (paid & volunteer) and in a few instances what I did/my work was important but my person/who I am did not. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge. Value people not simply positions.
4. Don’t assume the worst about people who end their lives. Ending their lives does not make them bad people. They are not selfish people. They are not weak people. They are not crazy people, they are not demon possessed. They are not Hell bound. They are people whose hope ran out, people who tried until they could try no longer. They are people who live with an illness, yes it is an illness, some illness is physical & some illness is mental. They are people who would have continued to live if they could. And most likely, it hurt them deeply to have to leave those they love.
5. Check in on people. It’s not enough to be aware of a person’s struggle and distance yourself from them, waiting for the next time they reach out to you or if it’s a leader just wait for their faith to kick in. Check in from time to time, ask how they are doing, be a friend.
6. Remember that it is not necessary nor appropriate for you to fill every space or moment with your words. Presence is a priceless gift to offer, just be there.
7. Some situations don’t need a bible verse. Nuff said.
8. The absence of a smile does not equate to the absence of faith, but often an indicator of pain.
9. The presence of a smile does not equate joy and the absence of depressive conditions. Some of us are skilled at putting our smile on like we put on clothing. Not every smiling face is content and at peace, sometimes if appropriate it is good to gently go a little deeper [with a person’s permission of course].
10. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Some will appreciate that because it opens the door for them to share their story, open their hearts and help you with “knowing” more deeply.
11. Never ever never, under any circumstances be trite or offer empty platitudes or clichés. Mental illness for some people, at given points in the struggle, is a matter of life and death.
Well, that’s a long list but not at all extensive, so if you have other things you would add please do so in the comments section. Gone are the days when we can just keep the stigma going regarding mental illness and think it’s ok. Lives are lost because of our silence and refusal to engage the topic. People give up because they feel the need to suffer in silence and hide their truth rather than let people in. We can do better.
Here are just a few resources that might help:
Talking Mental Health in the Black Community (Huff Post Live recording)
Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – Monica A. Coleman
Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting – Terrie Williams
Beyond Blue (the blog)
Say Yes to Grace: How to Burn Bright without Burning Out – Kirk Byron Jones
Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers – Kirk Byron Jones