The words “church” and “mental health” don't often appear in the same sentence. In fact, struggling with your head or heart in a church setting is often seen as rebellion, judgement, or failure.
People unhelpfully offer people the verse, “The joy of the Lord is your strength!” This denial of our human frailty drives the struggling individual to mask, hide, or deny what they’re feeling, and sometimes they end up leaving the church completely. And without the security and acceptance of “the body” we enter the lonely wilderness of our condemning thought patterns. Incredibly, it would be a different reaction if Brother Bob had a heart attack, a cancer scare, or a broken toe—I guess those are okay maladies. But not mental health dips! And yet, Scripture is filled with stories of struggling, psalms of utter despair, gentle but dynamic positive affirmations, and mental health maintenance tools. Here's a quick example of what I'm saying.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapists have discovered that if we can learn to examine our thoughts, we can change our lives. The Bible tells us to "take captive our thoughts.” CBT tell us to fill our heads with neutral or good thoughts. Scripture tells us to keep our minds on the pure, the good, the lovely, and the true. Yes, Scripture has the keys for our good days and bad days; it’s rich in hope, while the world of struggling mental health is poor in hope. I’m convinced the mind is our Enemy's preferred battleground, and we need all the tools and weapons of warfare to bring all our soldiers home.
So would I meet this team of researchers from the U.S. and talk about mental health? You’d better believe I would.
When the director and scriptwriter of the film, titled “Unseen,” arrived in Dublin, my task was to help them get a taste of the way we in Ireland approach mental health issues. I never intended to do more than one day. I did have a secret wish to play a role in a movie someday, but I figured I’d missed my chance and at my age it was just too late. But even if I couldn’t have a role in a movie, this would give me the chance to be involved in one. We met some of my friends and contacts, and spent a day in conversation marinated in love, passion, and creativity. It was a good day and then the team moved on.
As I lay in bed that night ruminating (there's a good mental health word) over what we’d accomplished that day, my final thought was, Well at least I was honest and vulnerable. I’d been open about my own life struggles.
What? A struggling pastor? Yes. Even though I was raised in a Christian home, have known about God since I was a baby, and have known God personally since I was 13, I’ve been on both high mountaintops and in deep dark valleys over the course of my life.
When I was a teenager, right up through my early twenties, I was crippled with a series of panic attacks. Yes, I did know the verse about “the joy of the Lord” (everyone in church quoted it to me), but when the fear gripped me, my breath grew short, and my heart raced I was just freaked. With God’s help, the passage of time, and changing some of my lifestyle choices (I was very involved in theatre, had a full-time job, and was too fond of alcohol), the feelings abated.
Later, I was 35, had been married to my high school sweetheart for 12 years, and had a family of five small children. I got overwhelmed with the pressures of life—family, senior executive role in a financial institution, working with various charities, running a home. It all got to be too much and I went through a 9-month period of depression. I was able to make it through with the help of God and my wife Jean.
But then on September 6, 2011, I got a phone call telling me that Jean was seriously ill. By the time I got to her side at the hospital an aneurism had taken her life, and her spirit had gone to be with her best friend Jesus. We’d been together for 33 years, and my heart was broken into a thousand pieces. I knew that Jesus knew how I felt. He’d lost Lazarus, and cried. I was on the edge and all that held me together was love. The love of and for my kids. The love of my friends and family. And the knowledge that above all else, nothing can separate me from the love of God.
So there’s my nutshell list of major mental health crises. The truth is that every day contains a myriad of minor ones, but the big ones have shaped my heart and compelled me to guide others through this valley of darkness.
So I’ve become an outspoken advocate for mental health. I speak in schools, colleges, churches, companies, and clubs; on radio, TV, the web—anywhere a stigma-breaking voice needs to be heard. I’ve become a hope user and a hope pusher.
“Unseen” director M.D. Neely saw something in me that might add to a character in this movie about how we hold secrets and hurt, how we don’t talk, how love conquers all, how we need to cultivate hope, and how reaching out to listen changes the game. He invited me to audition, with no promises made.
I was nervous sending off my audition piece, but gave it to God—one of those surrendered…ish prayers. Father, thy will be done—but seriously…you know what I would like, right?
In any event, God moved. They liked me, I got the part, and I found myself in the hands of the Christ In Youth team. They lifted this project from an ordinary idea to an extraordinary work of art. It comes marinated in all our best efforts, our humble prayers, and in Creator God’s grace. It’s a poignant portrayal of an average family struggling to make sense of death—a family shattered but not broken by a loved one choosing to kill themselves. It’s a story of love.
I can see it being such a conversation starter, stigma breaker, and life changer.
So to M.D.: Thanks for your vision.
To CIY: Thanks for giving me a bucket list experience. To all the cast and crew: Bravo, but to God be the Glory. I’m now happily married to an amazing blessing named Karen, and we have three dogs. We’re pastoring a new church plant, and we’re so excited about what God is doing and what he will do.