I was shaking, crying and struggling to breathe. I was sitting, hidden in a stairwell at my church. Was it a heart attack? I closed my eyes and prayed, Was this the end?
I felt utterly alone.
That was the worst panic attack I’d ever experienced and it hit me on a regular Sunday morning at church. The worst part? Nobody in my community knew.
I’ve lived with Bipolar 2 Disorder for my entire adult life, but the last people to know were the people at the place I loved most of all, my local church.
Maybe it was shame, fear of judgement or not knowing how to ask for help. Whatever it was, it kept me silent and suffering alone for far too long. It breaks my heart that I didn’t feel safe enough to ask for help in the very place I should have felt safest.
But I think we can change this—for me and for the countless others who suffer silently in church.
I believe the first step to creating a safe and inclusive environment within our churches is open and honest dialogue. We also need to welcome education about both mental health and mental illness. (Everybody has mental health; some of us suffer with a mental illness.)
Intentional and meaningful preaching and teaching from people with lived experience is also vital. We need to hear stories from those who have battled and continue to battle Clinical Mental Illness. We need to see that we are loved, just as we are, by God and by our faith community.
We need to be heard without judgement. Believe us when we tell you our thoughts, feelings and experiences, even if they confuse or even frighten you. Your open understanding might save a life.
When you are walking with someone with mental illness, your only job is to love us on our journey. We don’t need to be saved; we just need you to be a friend. While it takes time to cutivate honest and meaningful connection, know that the greatest gift during a depressive or hypomanic episode is time and connection.
It sounds so simple, but we must keep showing up for people again and again, even when it is hard and heavy. I am convinced we must embrace the messy. We should be a safe and sacred sanctuary for those who suffer. If we truly listen and love like Jesus, we as the church can end the stigma around mental health and truly be the church Jesus means us to be.