Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A "Living Room" testimony

I was delighted today to receive an email from one of our Living Room support group members which she had sent to a bunch of her friends. I'll share a portion of it here:

"When I told her (a friend) about my support group for mood disorders and what a blessing it was, she asked ('and don't be offended,' she added) 'isn't that depressing to be around a bunch of crazy people?' I said, 'No way, it's a safe place to support each other in our common brokenness and to realize you're not the only one to feel this way. In that setting, I've learned that it's an invisible disease but not any different than diabetes is and to dispel the stigma and shame that's associated with mental illness. I'm learning that my condition is not a curse but could be a blessing. In my lows I get a sense of what emotional pain people can go through (especially my dad). When I'm manic I get so much accomplished and feel so inspired and creative.'

"Interesting to know that our facilitator marja bergen wrote on the same subject on her blog that I read the day before: learning to empathize with people who are so in the dark about the subject and to try to understand where they're coming from - not to be easily offended as we're trying to get them to understand us - basically having grace towards them, as others have extended grace to us.

"I encouraged (my friend) to google bp to find out more and to check out marja's blog. I think that marja's desire to dispel the stigma of our disease is rubbing off on me. In my small way I'm trying to educate others that I come across and it's amazing how when you share your vulnerabilities people often open up about themselves and about the people that are close to them that suffer from mental illness."

I am grateful to this person for sharing this with her friends, and now with my blogging pals. You have encouraged me, J.

A reminder: If you are interested in learning how to set up a faith-based Living Room support group in your church, I have manuals available to help you do this. Cost for US residents is $9.75 and for those in Canada it's $8.25. This includes postage and handling. Contact me at

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Understanding people who do not understand

First of all I need to answer Syd's questions in her comment to my last post. (Doing it here to make sure she sees it.) I belong to a small congregation of about 150 members. It belongs to the Christian and Missionary Alliance of Canada (Alliance for short). The two distinctives of our denomination are that of leading people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and sending people out around the world to tell others about the good news of God's love for them.

In the last post I talked about how my congregation learned to understand and support people with mental illness. I think one important thing that helps me when I try to educate and help people understand mental health issues - whether it's in my writing or meeting with them - is that I try hard to understand the people who don't yet understand.

I believe we need to go further than just believing that people need to understand US. We need to understand THEM as well. Understanding works best when it goes two ways. We should understand EACH OTHER. That means that we who live with mental illness should also have some empathy for people who are well but need encouragement to grow in their understanding of what mental illness is and isn't. We need to have some patience with them and educate them gradually. Their learning will be a process - a step-by-step cutting through the stigma that is so heavily ingrained.

We want healthy people to be able to put themselves in our place and have empathy; but we who live with mental illness also need to try to put ourselves in their place and understand why they have trouble having that empathy. We need to understand how to build empathy where it doesn't presently exist. And we need to have patience for the process, not getting angry or frustrated, having enough self-esteem to believe that we can change things.

When we have empathy for the people who are in the dark about mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, when we understand why they don't have compassion, and when we can love them nevertheless, we can start changing things.

It's a matter of believing in ourselves enough so that we feel no shame or guilt. People will then not be able to hurt us as much by their misunderstanding attitudes. We can learn to ignore snubs and not return them with the same. When people have trouble reaching out to us, we can reach out to them. We need to introduce people gently and gradually to the knowledge of what it means to have an illness like we have. We must not internalize the stigma. We must not accept the stigma, but live as though it doesn't exist.

I don't know if this is possible for everyone. From what I've heard from others, it appears not. Perhaps it's been possible for me because of my decision ten years ago to start educating the public by writing about my illness, trying to build empathy and compassion. Reducing the stigma of mental illness has been my main objective in life ever since. Perhaps that's why I've been able to help build compassion in my church. I have learned not to be hurt by people who don't understand me.

I believe that most people want to have compassion. They only need to understand our illnesses better. For that to happen, the stigma that produces fear in people and makes them avoid learning about it needs to be reduced. And the only way to reduce stigma is for people to talk openly about it. When we make mental illness a natural thing to talk about, it's amazing how many people with such problems will come out of the woodwork. It's amazing how much more support can be built.

I thank God that in my church mental health issues have become an okay thing to talk about - something for which we don't need to feel shame. And how freeing that is!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Helping a church become supportive

Susan Bernard's last post prompts me to talk a bit about how my church became as supportive as it has towards people with mental health problems. In the comments Susan and Sydney say how they wish they could find a place of worship like mine. I'm hoping that this post will help you understand that this support has only grown gradually, over time. I had to educate members of the congregation and they needed to have time to get to know me and come to understand what my illness does to me.

When I first started going to this church, I too felt lonely. It took time to get to know people and start feeling comfortable. But there was one woman who took it on herself to talk to me Sunday mornings. She invited me to a ladies' group she led and I came to know people there. Because of the heart-felt discussions we had, I ended up telling them about my mental health problems.

Soon after I started attending, I decided to visit the pastor. I wanted him to know of my problems. If anything were to go wrong with me I wanted him to be aware. I wanted him to understand. I gave him a copy of Riding the Roller Coaster, telling him how I wanted to help reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. Several months later I had a meeting with him and his wife and gave them a gift of a photograph I made, together with a story I wrote describing how I found God. We talked a little more about my disorder and the three of us prayed together. My pastor always asked God to help him learn more about mental illness through me. (pretty neat, eh?)

Being a big letter writer, I ended up emailing my pastor often when I was going through my moods. I tend to be a very spiritual person and have a great need to express my feelings about God and how I experience him (as you have seen on this blog). My pastor came to know me quite well. Many emails went to my ladies' group leader as well. She ended up becoming my best friend, my best supporter, my sister, my mother, my mentor - all rolled into one. These two individuals have helped me grow in a huge way.

At church, occasional readings about my life followed. My struggles were now common knowledge. Yet I had lots of friends. I loved them and I felt loved in return. After one of my readings, a number of church members came up to me and shared some of their own problems with me. It felt good to connect in that way. I wanted people like these to have a place where they could freely share more of their pain with others who would understand. And so the plan for a Living Room support group was born.

Today, when someone in the church is known to have an emotional problem, they are introduced to me because it is believed that I will understand and be able to give support. (It happens very frequently.) I'm not sure how I feel about that. I do like supporting people, but somehow I wish that some of the healthier people would not be afraid to do the supporting as well.

The wonderful thing is this: with Living Room as an important part of our ministry, people in our church are less worried about being open about their mental health struggles. Living Room is often talked about. I don't think people feel too much shame being connected with it. I know I don't. And I think in turn, others don't either. This is what true church support should look like.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Finding meaning in a life with bipolar disorder

A while ago I had an article published on with the above title. The first person to comment did not like my view at all, arguing that: "It's bad. It's a defect in our brain functioning. There is no gift from God about it. Mental illness is bad"

I wondered whether I had gone too far with finding good in it. But today I once more looked into Harold Koenig's Faith and Mental Health and found that this doctor and author whom I respect, says some very similar things:

"A religious perspective on mental illness can lighten the burden by emphasizing that even these dreaded conditions have the possibility of good. Pain, suffering and fear associated with mental illness are not experiences that anyone would seek after. However, what does a person do if he or she has such a condition?"

"In order to survive and maximize quality of life, it may help to adopt a religious view that sees mental illness as having a special meaning or purpose-that something good may someday result from the illness. Religious faith makes it possible for people to see their illnesses as serving a higher purpose.

"Religious faith may help to transform a person's view of his or her illness. Although not easy, it is possible to view mental illness as a gift that not only helps to deepen and sensitize the person who has it, but also can serve a key role in the 'formation' of our faith communities.

"From this perspective, mental illness can have at least three purposes. It can
  1. sensitize the emotionally or mentally ill person to the pain and suffering of others, uniquely equipping them with the insight and ability to help;
  2. draw the sufferer closer to God or deepen their spirituality; and
  3. challenge those in the faith community to support and include him or her as an integral part of the congregation."
I'm not crazy after all!!! I'm not alone in feeling this way - in believing in the importance of developing this kind of attitude.

And for you who have doubts, I can tell you that your mental illness CAN be like a gift, though not one you would ask for or one you would just love to receive. Yet if you believe in God's love and trust him, you will find out that " all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." Romans 8:28

And...standing on my evangelical preaching stool...I will tell you that this can happen for you too. TRUST God, BELIEVE what the Bible tells you (it really makes a lot of sense), hold up Jesus as your example to LOVE OTHERS and to LOVE GOD, and believe that Jesus took all the bad stuff we have done - sacrificing his life for us. WE ARE FORGIVEN and free to live the kind of life God means for us to live. And living that kind life is not a burden - it is actually very freeing and brings great joy.

Honest!! I promise.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The manuals are here!

After a lot of work, checking and re-checking, having checked by others, having them professionally edited and then beautifully printed, the two manuals are finally finished. They're sitting in open boxes in our hallway, where I can look at them as I pass and feel good about it all. I've received a lot of interest from people who want to have copies. How gratifying! And when I think of how much good this could end up doing...!

I promised to let you know the cost of these books (though they're only 20 and 24 pages, they're more than just booklets).

Creating Living Room helps people with mood disorders and church leaders learn the Living Room concept and how to set up a group. Cost: $2.50

Facilitating Living Room gives facilitators guidance and encouragement. Cost: $3.25.

Cost of postage and handling for one book or the two together is the same. Within Canada: $2.50. To the US: $4.00. That's under $10 for the two. We're only covering our costs.

If you would like to receive one or both copies, please email your name and address to me. An invoice will be included with your mailing. I'm Marja at

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Spiritual influence on our mental well-being

First of all, I want to very much thank Mel, David, Sarah (an ever so big welcome back to you) and Princess Heidi for your comments on my last post. Princess Heidi, I will come and visit your new blog soon. You're so lucky to have a dad who will help you with that.

I've been meaning for a while to draw from Harold Koenig's book, Faith & Mental Health, and share with you some of the treasures of thinking and understanding I have found there.

Koenig tells of nearly 500 studies during the twentieth century that reported statistically significant associations between religion and mental health. (478 out of 724 studies) (page 133)

He lists and explains ten ways in which religion could improve mental health. Religion:
  1. Promotes a positive worldview
  2. Helps to make sense of difficult situations
  3. Gives purpose and meaning
  4. Discourages maladaptive coping
  5. Enhances social support
  6. Promotes other-directedness
  7. Helps to release the need for control
  8. Provides and encourages forgiveness
  9. Encourages thankfulness
  10. Provides hope.
I wish I had the room here and the time to go into each of these points in detail. What will have to suffice is my testimony that I have found all these important in my Christian walk and important in my ability to be well. Not that I'm always perfectly well. Those who have come to know me will remember many times I have struggled. Yet my faith has grown and my mental health has improved since I began following Christ. I love my life. God has given me much to be grateful for.

Good, non-judgmental Christian support is very important for those who suffer from mental illness. People with such illnesses need Christ-like love, so they will be encouraged in their faith - so they will benefit from their faith as described in the ten points listed above.

And I'm going to, once more, mention Living Room, the support group I facilitate. I am fortunate to have the support of my entire church. The church considers this one of its most important ministries. Many people are finding support - the kind of support only a faith-based group can offer. We are helping people put their trust in God. We are helping people have hope. Knowing this gives me joy and helps keep my own mental health strong. If this were only possible for more of those who suffer!

Christians CAN help people with mental illness. I believe they want to; they only have to know how. They need the tools. They need the understanding.

Now you're probably getting tired of hearing about this, but now that my Living Room manuals are coming out, I am on a quest to see more groups start up. If you are interested in learning how to set up a Living Room group in your church, email me at When the manuals come out, I can send you copies of a manual that explains the concept (good for pastors to see) as well as a guide for facilitators. When I get them back from the printer I will be able to let you know the cost.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Anger at Living Room

No, we didn't get angry at our Living Room group yesterday. We only discussed anger - anger with God in particular.

The discussion started with the question, "Do you ever feel angry or frustrated with God for your suffering with mood disorder?" Some people did feel that way and we talked a bit about how such frustration, if we hang on to it for too long, will lead to bitterness and separation from God.

We talked about Job and how he riled against God and asked God to explain why he allowed such terrible things to happen to him. But God answered him "...out of the storm...I will question you, and you shall answer me." Job 38:1-3. In other words, it's not our place to question God; it's the other way around. In Job 38:4 - 41:34 the most beautiful poetry follows with God expressing how awesome he truly is. God does so in a long series of powerful rhetorical questions: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?...Who marked off its dimensions?..." And in 42:5-6, Job replies, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. (so vivid is the picture God paints) Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."

Looking at the Psalms we saw how David was frequently frustrated with God. But in almost all cases, he doesn't stay there. At the end of his lamentations, he turns to expressions of hope and praise. We played a song by Brian Doerksen based on Psalm 13 - a beautifully sensitive prayer that I think touched us all deeply.

Our conclusion? It's often difficult to trust God when we're in the midst of depression. Sometimes the best thing to do is to turn to a Christian friend who we trust, a friend who will have faith for us until we recover.

(A reminder: If you think you might like to set up a Living Room group at your church, I can send you manuals - tools to get you started. email me at to order. The manuals are at the printer.)