By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
“Let me tell you a story.”
Those are the first words in the Rev. David Finnegan-Hosey’s memoir, Christ on the Psych Ward, an inspiring book that should be read by anyone who cares about the future of congregational life in America. The personal narrative is David’s struggle to overcome his crisis with mental health. Along the way, he invites us to look at how churches can respond more appropriately to the millions of families facing these issues every year.
His theme draws on the same deep religious traditions that have animated our online magazine for more than a decade: the spiritual solace of stories. We are, after all, ReadTheSpirit magazine. Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions all begin with sacred origin stories. Christians teach that Jesus Christ actually is the “Word” and the Quran lifts up for Muslims the power of the “Pen” and the command to “Read!” as defining attributes of God’s work in the world.
To distill David’s message into three words, he tells us: Stories are healing.
In our online magazine, we often publish stories about new books and films that bust myths, break down stereotypes and invite compassionate understanding of our neighbors who seem quite different at first glance. David’s central metaphor of storytelling cuts to the heart of this challenge: What stories do we tell about people with mental illness? Simply look at almost any news section of The New York Times and you’ll find related stories. As Americans, we’re talking a lot about mental illness these days.
In his book, David asks: Are we telling those stories in the most helpful way? Do we tend to talk about mental illness as a medical problem? Do we turn to spiritual metaphors? Are we tempted to reach for troubling images from novels, films and popular culture? Rather than helping families, do we wind up demonizing or isolating people?
Then, David sums up the questions this way:
What story do we tell about mental illness? A medical story frames recovery in terms of medicine, which can be a powerful, and useful, and good story. A problematic spiritual story can frame illness in terms of possession and recovery in terms of exorcism. More robust spiritual stories, in all their variations, can frame recovery in terms of presence, acceptance, and friendship. Perhaps, in the end, better stories are the most powerful healing, the most powerful exorcism, we have to offer.
That’s why this memoir, addressed pointedly to people of faith, is titled in a way that places the heart of Christianity—Christ—right there with David and others suffering through these crises actually “on the Psych Ward.”
‘OPENING UP SAFE PLACES’
David was diagnosed and hospitalized for bipolar disorder in 2011, while he was trying to make his way through Wesley Seminary in Washington D.C. Eventually, he returned to Wesley and completed his master’s degree in divinity. Today he is chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University. He says his wife urged him to turn his story into a book. Even before the book was finished, he also went to the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina and told his story during one of the sessions during that vast festival.
“I would not have gone to Wild Goose or written this book without my wife’s encouragement. I was really resistant to the idea, at first,” David said in an interview about his book. “Then, at Wild Goose, I gave a talk along with the Rev. Sarah Griffith Lund, who wrote Blessed Are the Crazy about her family’s experience with mental illness.
“We were scheduled on a side stage at Wild Goose,” David explained. “There were national figures up on the main stage, so we didn’t expect much. Then, more than 300 people showed up! That was really eye opening for me. They didn’t show up because we were famous names. The famous people were on the other stage. They came because we were talking about a real need in their lives. I realized how important it was to open up more safe places in faith communities to talk about these issues.
“I could see, then, that my story was a door opener so others can share their stories. And that’s what’s so important about my book. I didn’t write this just to dump my story on others. I wrote this to create space for others. We all need to be more open and honest and together we can beat back some of the stigma about mental health in the faith community.”
‘WORDS HAVE POWER’
“Story has been a theme for me throughout my life,” David said as we talked. “Some of my earliest memories are telling fanciful stories to my parents and, then, working with my parents to make little books of them. A solid definition of Christian community is: Stewards of sacred stories. When we’re able to share our stories,we make connections and bring the community together.”
The key to compassionate storytelling lies in the words we use and the context in which we use them, David argues in his book.
“Words have power,” he said in our interview. “Words can be used to heal and to bring people together and words can be used to injure and to drive us apart. Words matter. Context matters. For example, there are certain words I can use, or jokes I can make about my experience of mental illness, because I’m inviting people to join me in laughing in a supportive way about our lives. But other people could use those same words, or tell those jokes, to make people feel small—sometimes to hurt people.”
Churches already have the basic resources to respond in helpful ways, David believes.
“I know that responding to mental illness is hard—but so is responding to a diagnosis of cancer,” he said. “Most congregations already have in their DNA the instincts to respond. There’s usually something in congregations that is a starting place. First, we know how to be thoughtful and compassionate to families. Then, perhaps you have Stephen Ministers or home visitors of some kind. There also are opportunities for more training all across the country.”
‘AN ADVOCATE FOR MENTAL HEALTH’
There is a personal note to this week’s review and interview. Christ on the Psych Ward was recommended by my son in law, the Rev. Joel Walther of the Goodrich United Methodist Church in Michigan. Joel’s own studies at Wesley seminary overlapped with David’s.
When talking with David and me about this book, Joel said that—as a pastor of a mid-sized congregation—he came away from the book with a very practical idea.
Joel wrote the following:
Reading Christ on the Psych Ward made me want to be an advocate for mental health. The book was a call to action—pointing out practical ideas for getting involved. One option is training in Mental Health First Aid. After finishing the book, I got online and looked for a course offered in my community. Within a week, I was able to take a course in Mental Health First Aid.
The class encourages people to become more aware. When signs of mental health issues arise, this course trains people to notice and compassionately respond. The sooner a mental health crisis can be spotted, the sooner a person can get the help that they need.
Courses on Mental Health First Aid help fight the ongoing stigma that surrounds mental health in this society. A course like this presents mental health issues for what they are—illnesses that can and should be addressed, not hidden away because of shame. I love the idea that I can be trained in physical first aid as well as mental health first aid. I would encourage others to look for classes in their area and to take advantage of them.
‘A BASIC DO-NO-HARM APPROACH’
“Clergy definitely need this kind of training,” David said in our interview. “But, don’t forget all the other folks in your congregation who are on the front lines with people. Ask yourself: Who answers the phone at our church? Who are your ushers and greeters? Home visitors? Youth leaders? Encouraging this kind of first-aid training gives everyone some basic language and skills to spot things that are emerging in your community. We’re not making people mental health experts, but this kind of training does encourage a basic do-no-harm approach to helping people.”
In the end, David also stressed that this book represents his own experience and advice—and others may disagree with some of his recommendations. “I’m not trying to speak for everyone. I want to make that very clear. I do encourage people to share their stories of mental illness and to help create safe places to tell these stories—but I also understand when people tell me: This is something I don’t want to tell people about for a variety of reasons. For some people, this is a privacy issue. For others, they might fear losing their job. I understand those responses.
“In this book, I’m simply telling my story. I hope that readers will join me in opening doors.”
CARE TO READ MORE?
Do you know how many Americans experience mental illness each year? About 1 in every 5 of us—or more than 40 million people! That data comes from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides several very helpful (and free) handouts you can use in discussing the issue with others.
Learn more about David Finnegan-Hosey. You can follow him on Twitter.
VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that explore faith and compassion for “the other” in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore. Among the titles, you may be especially this week in Benjamin Pratt’s Guide for Caregivers.