Prayer and Mental Health

Dear friends,

I wish to offer a brief but deeply personal reflection. I do not share these words lightly. They come from a place of trust that, in sharing my story, others may find help and hope.

Since I was 10 I have suffered from chronic anxiety and depression. I began seeing a mental health therapist in late 2015 and was diagnosed with PTSD related to traumatic psychological and physical abuse at the hands of my parents. I have been on medication since early 2016 to help cope with the symptoms. Unfortunately, the medication isn’t a panacea.

There was a period in 2012-2013 when I was having panic attacks on a weekly basis while serving a hostile and volatile congregation in Philadelphia as pastor. When I arrived at my current pastoral assignment, the panic attacks went away. However, I have experienced frequent bullying and nasty behavior in the past several months from a few persons and the panic attacks which I worked so hard to subdue have returned. (In late October I also experienced a severe PTSD attack which left me incapacitated for several days.) And tonight, as I wrestled with the issues surrounding this current round of bullying that included a nasty letter directed at me earlier this week at church,  I had another panic attack right before a friend came over for dinner. I was unable to join my family for supper as I tried to recover in another room.

I write this post to draw your attention to two realities and to offer a word of hope. First, mental health disorders and traumatic experiences are real issues that the church must understand if it is going to be able to effectively minister to our world. As pastors and congregational leaders, we will encounter many people who suffer from some form of depression, anxiety, or mental disability or trauma. And, as I cited a few weeks ago in a post on this site, many pastors suffer from some form of anxiety or depression because of toxic bullies in their lives and ministries. A mental health disorder is not a sign of weakness, just as a physical disorder is not a sign of weakness. Nor do I consider it a disqualifier from pastoral ministry; it has opened doors and allowed me to minister to people in ways I would not be able to understand without journeying through this myself.

And it isn’t something that can be instantly healed or cured. No one is healed once-and-for-all. Acknowledging mental health disorders as part of our humanity is so vitally important if the church is to be a place where people can find the ongoing acceptance, love, and healing that takes a lifetime to learn and will never be fully accomplished until the day of the great resurrection.

Second, you will face bullies throughout your life. In recent years I have been given the confidence through fine mental health professionals to stand up for myself and say, “I don’t deserve to be treated this way.” And even as a pacifist serving in a pacifist denomination, I think it’s acceptable to say that I have dignity and worth and deserve to be treated better. One needn’t attack another in order to stand up for oneself.

Through these times I have often returned to the Psalms to give liturgical voice to my prayers. I received a lovely note from a dear pastor-friend with whom I shared the grief I’ve experienced in the past several months. He told me that he was praying for me, but also that he would be praying Psalm 13 with me. Psalm 13 is a lament song, a prayer of desperation. They are words born from the pit of one’s soul in the dealing with pain that seems unbearable.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

When you find yourselves in dark places or being mistreated either by those who are supposed to love you or by those entrusted to your care, turn to these words. The psalms of lament are valuable ways to give voice to the pain in our hearts that often cannot find expression on our lips. Pastors and worship leaders, too, don’t forget to offer space for your people to pray these words in worship. Many of them need a place to learn to grieve the prisons of their own minds, to mourn the realities of their past, or to find the confidence to stand up to those who are bullies in their lives. The Psalms give us this chance. So pray, not because it will heal you or because it demonstrates your faith in the power of prayer. Pray because it brings to your lips the turmoil of your mind and soul, and in those moments you may find the presence of our God.

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