Faith Works 8-17-13
Stigma, by any other name
In talking about the church and mental health regarding "stigma," a major issue is how people of faith misunderstand counseling and psychology.
"Stigma" is generally thought of as negative assumptions about people. But I believe that there are preconceptions people have, and false impressions about the practice of mental health care itself that are keeping folks back from getting involved in potentially helpful steps, which is just as bad as the stereotype of thinking ill of people who admit to mental illness.
There's the couch. The whole Freudian picture of someone lying down on an oddly shaped piece of furniture you don't see outside of a great-grandmother's parlor, talking to the ceiling about their childhood while a bearded psychotherapist strokes their chin and takes note without looking at the patient.
There may be two of those kinds of counselors left, and they both live on Manhattan. Nowadays you sit in perfectly normal chairs and talk to friendly people who have reasonable, if occasionally tough questions to ask. So forget that whole "couch" image to start with.
Some people of faith have heard that most counselors and therapists are intent on mocking and refuting religion in general, and Christianity in particular. It's simply not true. Not true at all. You might find a vigorous and mildly unethical atheistic counseling professional who works hard to convince the faithful to abandon their beliefs, but it would take looking, and I've not encountered one here in Ohio.
You can find specifically Christian counselors, but even in general, mental health professionals are in favor of pro-social activities of any sort, and aren't interested in talking you into or out of any one particular faith.
In fact, while I can't say I've met and talked to every person involved in counseling and recovery in Licking County, I've met quite a few of them, and can personally state that many of them attend a church, pray, and deeply respect the role of faith in a person's life from their own personal experience.
I think there's a reverse stigma in these sorts of points that make people unwilling to make a call, to reach out for help, or even to learn HOW to reach out for help – because they think psychology is some odd, idiosyncratic activity that doesn't make sense to those who might potentially benefit from it; because they think counseling has some intrinsic hostility to faith; and due to an expectation that their mental health professional will themselves be hostile to faith in the lives of their patients.
So let's say you've gotten past these false impressions, and you have a friend, a family member with a deep depression, a pattern of behavior that makes you fearful for their future, or they're just plain stating an intention to kill themselves. What should you do?
First, if there is any immediate threat, you should simply call 911. That is simple and necessary. If the means to hurt one's self or others is up and out and in their hands, you should call 911. Ask if they can send a CIT trained officer, but call 911. (CIT trained because most jurisdictions have "crisis intervention trained" officers available, but it doesn't hurt to specify.)
The trickier part is if you have someone you've realized is talking about death, about hurting themselves in general terms, whose intentions you're worried about, but not clear what they'll do. Keep in mind that you can always, at any time, for ANY reason, call 211, which will connect you with Pathways of Central Ohio, serving Licking & Knox Counties.
211 or 345-HELP will put you in touch with trained phone crisis counselors who have a complete set of resource listings for central Ohio; they know how to help you figure out what to do next, and who to call.
Someone can say they are feeling so low they wish they were dead, and you will (and should) worry, and want to help. 211 is happy to help. If someone says, no matter how jokingly, "I want to kill myself," and they have done anything at all to make their intention happen – gathered a stash of pills, bought a hank of rope, talk about where they've put their gun – you MUST treat that as something more than "just a threat." And again, if there is even the smallest sense that there's an immediate threat, call 911.
You have the option during weekdays to call Crisis Services at our local Behavioral Healthcare Partners (bhcpartners.org), 522-8477 from 8 am to 5 pm and share your concerns about a family member or friend, or yourself. They can guide you in what to do, and outside of their hours: call 211 for much the same service.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him how you push back against stigma at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.