Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Faith Works 2-23

Faith Works 2-23-13

Jeff Gill


Believing in mental health



Mental health and religion are often uneasy residents of a ramshackle duplex.


I'm not just trying to be discreet and avoid the usual "bedfellows" metaphor, but to make a slightly different point altogether.


The question of mental health not that long ago was mental hygiene, and before that, wasn't a medical specialty at all. Sadness, madness, or badness were all considered the work of the church, unless you harmed another person out of your dis-ease, in which case you became a legal matter, for the stocks or jail or some other legal punishment that might extend all the way to a penitentiary . . . and in that word you can see those two worlds coming full circle, since your time apart in confinement was supposed to be less a penalty as time to sit alone with your thoughts and prayers and have a chance to firmly resolve to amend your life.


Other than a social change from reformatories and penitentiaries to "prison" and a more punitive outlook, not much has changed (and that, I'd argue, for the worse).


Wait, you may well ask, what are you saying? Are you cra . . . I mean, what has deranged your thoughts? Aren't you aware of the great movement towards mental health and psychiatry and psychoactive pharmacology and counseling and coaches and, um, all that stuff?


Oh, trust me, I'm aware of it. And value it, both personally and as a pastor. The mental health community is a valuable asset, and in pastoral counseling, with which I have basic, minimal training, I know just enough to know my limits, and when to make a referral, which is pretty quickly in most cases. Most pastors are not fully up to speed in dealing with clinical depression, suicide, addiction and recovery, marital crisis beyond the basic communication and relationship level, unruly kids, and so on. We may have training or skills in one or two of those areas, but we're not going to be the whole enchilada.


A skillful referral can be our best skill when it comes to most pastoral counseling.


But to make a skillful referral, we need someone, somewhere to refer to, and it has to be doable. In terms of cost, in terms of access, in terms of availability. For many clergy in Licking County, there's a not unreasonable anxiety that for many of our parishoners, effective mental health supports seem out of reach. That's where I say that for a major swath, if not an actual majority of the population, there's still mainly the church, and the legal system, and not much more.


There are medications, and they have their place. Suddenly – and I can't remind us too often of how utterly new and still experimental so much of this world is – we have medications that any family practitioner can prescribe: for depression, for ADHD, for anxiety. They themselves still work within a billing and cost-management straightjacket (can we still use that word?) of twelve minute patient interviews (or less), but they can write the scrip and recommend a person or place to talk to someone, and then your management and self-care is still largely on your own.


You and Oprah, and Dr. Phil, or that book cousin Ed recommended.


There are options in Licking County for people without insurance or money to get help with mental health issues. Next week, I want to talk about some of our community providers, who are more approachable and accessible than is generally thought. Is it instantaneously available? Pretty much never, but a little patience can pay great dividends. There is a smaller hole in the doughnut than many seem to think. The worst case scenario is for someone working and making a semi-decent income, but with no insurance or on a very restrictive plan. IMHO, this demographic has the worst options before them, but even they have some places to turn, though nowhere near enough.


But I also want to extend an olive branch to the mental health community from those of us in the churches. There's a general sense that religion, at the very least, has a tendency to dysfunction, and that churches are enemies, not allies.


Aside from saying that's simply not true, I'd add a note from good old Sigmund Freud himself, who said "The goal of psychoanalysis is to convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness."


Fair enough, Siggy. You do your part, and we pick up from there: faith communities can be where ordinary unhappiness can be transformed into joy. There's no pill for that. But we reserve the right to suggest that God might be part of the treatment team for that last step!



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's interested in a community based approach to mental health & wholeness. Tell him what makes you feel whole at or on Twitter @Knapsack.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Knapsack 2-21

Notes From My Knapsack 2-21-13

Jeff Gill


Education and its discontents



Recently a high school teacher wrote a compelling essay in the Washington Post about what he sees as the decline of the cultural & verbal skills of the best students heading into college. He wrote it as an apology to college professors.


I think he made some good points (it's easy enough to find online), but overall, I'm not sure an apology is really what's called for.


In this country, we are embarked on a great experiment, whose uncertainty of delivery right now does not undermine the intent behind it. No similar geographic area and breadth of cultural diversity has ever tried to say, as our country is right now, that "we intend to bring 94+% of all children up to a certain minimum standard of educational accomplishment."

Any large landmass that's tried to deliver education this broadly, in a comparable manner, has generally excluded large groups entirely from the process, or ended up delivering quality in most major population centers while leaving most of the hinterlands high and dry. I can tell you that high school students in Rio Arriba County, NM, Greenbrier County, WV, or Licking County, OH have startlingly *similar* academic experiences, and that was not true just thirty years ago. Our urban core schools are hamstrung by a mix of systemic racism and economic implosion that are reinforced in toxicity by a deeply embedded culture that is itself a result of that same racism and economic injustice, and we are still trying to figure out an adequate answer that works for more than 30-40% of the students in that context, but good people are trying hard (including many in union leadership).

American education is a marvel, and the "hoop jumping" some note in terms of increased graduation requirements is a contrast to the possibility not so long ago in many districts to get a HS diploma with minimal effort and little impact on the mind or memory. You are now expected to know something and be able to show ability to go with that knowledge if you get a HS diploma, but expecting each district to reach that benchmark with 90% or more of their students is a NEW challenge, and I can't say that often enough. 50% grad rates, measured by all children (not just by those who began high school), was seen as a good school as recently as the 1980s in much of the country.

All of which is to say: I'm encouraged and hopeful in many ways about the big picture, but the general quality of the best students, say the top 20%/quintile, as measured by their knowledge of social studies, literature, and effective written/verbal communication, is going to be lower for some time into the future, because we not only aren't focusing on those kids the way we used to — not entirely a bad thing! — but in order to do these other things for most/all, we're not doing the humanities & critical thinking & expression parts of learning for almost any. I don't think it's a malign conspiracy to make cattle of us, but there's a real reason to worry, and (to make some lemonade here) an opportunity for church youth groups and service clubs and art studios and many other extra-curricular venues to jump in and pick up some of what's been dropped.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has been diagnosed in the past with chronic optimism, an apparently untreatable condition. Tell him what you think at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.