Lisa Keith, Psy.D., Associate Professor, Program Director, Mild/Moderate Credential and Master of Arts in Special Education
If someone is vulnerable enough to share their pain with you,
be respectful enough to try and believe them.
The thing is, a disability is still a disability, even when it’s not visible. Mental health disabilities are among the most insidious disabilities globally because others don't believe that the behavior is often a sign of illness. Whether euphoric or depressed, belligerent or anxious, the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders are manifestations of those illnesses. Things that those of us who live with these disabilities need from our friends and families are the hardest to come by: grace, acceptance, and inclusion.
Grace. It may be difficult to extend grace to someone whose behavior can be erratic or unpredictable. Believe us; we'd prefer not to feel the feelings behind these behaviors. It may be challenging to forgive outbursts, and words said on impulse. However, the grace you extend to a person with a mental health disability is more than grace. It expresses understanding and love to the individual that although you may not understand how tortured we may feel, you know that this illness is beyond our control. Most mental illnesses are very treatable with talk therapy and medication. But that doesn't mean they are curable. Mental illnesses will affect one in five adults in the United States. It is chronic – meaning it comes and goes – and this unpredictable ebb and flow is even more difficult for those afflicted than those around them. No one wants to be viewed as problematic, or hot-tempered, or impulsive. It may feel like an extra burden to be a person of faith and to try and live up to the unattainable standards that our Christian community has for a predictable, even-tempered, and serene demeanor.
Acceptance. Unconditional love. It’s why I love Jesus. He knows me inside and out, accepts me with all my flaws, and even more so because of them. I have had people tell me if I would only pray harder, He would heal me. As if I haven't thought of praying? But I've come to accept for myself that for whatever reason, God – who I believe didn't cause my disability, after all, we live in a broken world – has chosen not to heal me. When I first became ill, I tried everything I could think of to find answers. I tried different doctors, therapists, medications. I tried twelve-step programs and self-help books, and finally, finally, found Jesus. I discovered a small Mennonite Brethren church that accepted me and showed me the love of Jesus. It was not easy for members. I could be disruptive and erratic in the days before I tried just the right combinations of medications I take today. I've tried twenty different medicines over my illness's first 15-year period, five other doctors, and numerous therapists. I still have to work very hard to present and pass as "normal." Well, as normal as I can be – whatever normal means. But I know that no matter who does or doesn't like and accept me as I am – warts and all – I am still a beloved child of God.; that I have been forgiven and have been extended grace and accepted by Jesus, a loving and a faithful God still amazes me.
Inclusion. Inclusion is a powerful thing. It can make or break a person inside and out. When I think of acceptance, oddly enough, I think of Winnie the Poo! Winnie was a great friend to Eeyore. He didn't judge, or disbelieve, or even try to change Eeyore. He extended grace, accepted that Eeyore was what he was, and included him every time. Every time there was a meal, or gathering, or even a simple walk to the cafeteria or coffee shop. No, I know there were no cafeterias and coffee shops in Hundred Acre Wood, but there are on the Fresno Pacific campus. It is a sweet blessing to be invited for coffee, even if one doesn't feel up to going. To be recognized and asked every time the group goes without fail is a blessing to someone who lives with depression and anxiety, for whom crowds can be too overwhelming, or for whom it may be a day when we can think of no cheerful rejoinder. Just being included is a simple act of showing God's grace, and love, and acceptance.
Friends, if you know someone with a mental health disability, don't be afraid. Show the love of Jesus, and just as He extends grace upon grace, continue to demonstrate acceptance and inclusion. And last but not least, include them in your circle. Don't count them out. They may one day be your best solace and dearest friend.
“Father, we thank you for all those among us who live with a mental health disability. We acknowledge their value and importance as members of our community. Father, God of the universe, show us how to love all peoples of every disability, whether visible or invisible. And Father, we ask for your blessings on each of us to be able to extend grace like you, to accept others the way you do, and include everyone among us even as you have accepted us into your kingdom. Amen.”