During the month of May, I hear all the platitudes about mental health and “mental illness” that seem to be abundant in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month. This is the month when we’re supposed to raise awareness about those who live with mental health challenges. And, yet, every year, the vast majority of those posts seem to completely miss the point about why those with mental health challenges are so often marginalized in our system.

My primary faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, is no exception. Most of our clergy have little to no training in how to be inclusive of those with mental health challenges. And, like so many in our system, I have heard the medical model raised up as a cure-all among so many within our congregations and our association.

In recent years, our faith tradition has gradually begun to understand that the medical model of disability and neurodiversity is not only flawed, but that it often completely ignores the needs of a person. As a balance, the social model of disability reminds us that the medical model often does not adequately explain the reason people with disabilities and neurodiversities are pushed to the margins; instead, we’re challenged to think of the ways able-bodied and able-minded privilege allows us to ignore the needs of anyone who does not fit into the framework of what has been deemed “normal.”

(Please note, there is still plenty of work to be done in both these areas, so don’t take my paragraph as an excuse to become complacent in those areas and congratulate ourselves on a mission that has not yet been accomplished.)

Despite this, there has been little talk about the similarly flawed medical model of mental health, which deems anything outside the norm as being “illness.” Indeed, the very nature of calling these challenges “illnesses” is severely problematic, and there is much evidence that our current psychiatric model is doing more harm than good. The problem is, as a society, we are barely talking about any other model and alternatives to the medical model, such as alternative therapies, peer support, and peer respite, tend to be underfunded and underutilized.

I don’t plan on getting too deep about it in this post, but the prevailing belief that “mental illnesses” are caused by chemical imbalances has been known to be flawed for decades but continues to be spread as psychiatric gospel. I do not believe I am a person who is ill, despite the fact that psychiatrists have diagnosed me over the years with various different labels to try to explain my “maladjusted” behavior. I believe that, when you look at the history of my life, my responses are very understandable and, in many ways, expected.

Despite this, our system continues to push the notion that the only way to treat these “illnesses” is through medicinal and talk therapies. Some people benefit from these treatments. Others continue to suffer, often in silence, because the impression we get is there is something fundamentally wrong with us or we would be getting better. We get messages of “just keep trying” rather than understanding that we have something that doesn’t feel fixable. It is this misunderstanding, I believe, that can be so dangerous as people feel something is deeply wrong with the person they are.

Unitarian Universalism is no exception to this. I know many UUs who don’t self-disclose about their mental health struggles out of fear of being labeled, misunderstood, or refused a job. I personally believe that, had I not adhered to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee’s narrow recommendations, I might never have made it through the ministerial credentialing process. And, yet, it is this misunderstanding that leads people to believe they have no safe place to talk about their lives; I am aware that I am making myself incredibly venerable just by writing this post. Many don’t even view their challenges as struggles, but, rather, as just a different way of living.

As one person who hears voices once told me, they feel sorry for people who don’t hear voices.

I don’t fault anyone who finds comfort and healing in the medical model, especially in an age when the alternatives are few, far between, and often expensive. But shouldn’t a movement of justice-makers like Unitarian Universalists be pushing for a world where the people not helped by psychiatric treatments receive as much care and understanding as those who find it life-saving?

I can only speak for myself. Psychiatric drugs harmed me more than they ever helped. Talk therapy felt like a waste of time and money, and I fired at least half a dozen therapists during my ministerial formation process. What I’ve come to realize is that the accumulated trauma of my life has made me much more sensitive to pain and loss. I’m not sure I’ll ever not be. Some would call that depression and anxiety. Others would have “mood disorder” language for my experiences.

I just think I get sad, angry, and anxious sometimes and that has its positives and negatives. While it does mean sometimes I mope around and feel sorry for myself (and I acknowledge I can be difficult to be around), it also means I’m incredibly sensitive to the pain of others and it makes me an amazing pastoral and justice-focused minister. I have ways that help me cope during these times, and the people in my life are incredibly supportive in helping me find the space I need to be.

If, as Unitarian Universalism proclaims, we each have inherent worth and dignity, we must take each person on their own terms, hearing their life not through the narrow lens of medical diagnosis, but through deep listening to the stories and experiences of each person. Some people see their mental health challenges as a gift. It took me a long time to get to that point. For many, they would gladly give them up if given the opportunity. What we all have in common is a deep need to be seen and understood for the wonderfully unique and diverse people we are, held in a community that does not demand we be happier or less anxious or not talk about our experiences.

I don’t just want us to “stop the stigma,” as NAMI puts it; I want us to radically transform our faith movement into one that makes space for people with mental health challenges: in the pews, in congregational leadership, and even among our religious professionals, recognizing that the unique perspectives of those who live with mental health challenges can enrich our religion in ways we scarcely recognize at the present..

I am more than the sum of the labels psychiatry has applied to me. This is true whether the chemical imbalance theory is true or not. I need community that sees the beauty in me and rejects notions that I must change, or that I must be helped in specific ways that are not helpful to me.

I believe that Unitarian Universalism can be a force in pushing us towards recognizing that the barriers for those with mental health challenges, those often deemed “ill” by the medical model, are imposed by the system itself, not by something being wrong or flawed with the individual. Our congregations and communities can be saving places for folks with these struggles. They certainly have been for me when I seek comfort in the midst of dark times. But, still, they are too often places that reinforce the prejudice we have too often felt in the larger society.

Certainly there are people in our faith during this work. The Unitarian Universalist Mental Health Network is doing its best. But there is a lot yet to do, and it is going to take all of us.

Will you join me in carving out this space in Unitarian Universalism for those who need to hear our message that there is none beyond the reach of compassionate love?

And please, don’t ever say I’m ill.

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