Thursday, March 28, 2013

Continuing Lauri’s Legacy: Advocating for Mental Health Care

I recently attended the funeral of Lauri Hinrichsen: retired nurse, maker of beautiful cards, wife of Jim, mother of JoAnna, grandmother of Jamey and friend of so many. Lauri was a kindred spirit. We were connected through church ties ribbons of friendship, and the fine, fragile, gossamer web known as mental illness.


Rev. Jennie Churchman talked openly about Lauri’s debilitating chronic condition during her eulogy. She told us gathered there why she did it:
"First, Jim asked me to. This was a part of Lauri’s life, and he wanted me to address it. Second, none of this is a secret. Those of us who knew and loved Lauri already know. And in fact, you know better than I how long she fought to rise above this illness. It would be a disservice to her legacy to ignore the unyielding strength and courage Lauri displayed all through her adult life. But I also truly believe that Lauri would have wanted this to be addressed. For so many years, mental health issues have been in the shadows. When Lauri was first coming to terms with her illness, bipolar disorder couldn’t even be mentioned out loud. And those who suffered had to suffer in darkness and silence and sometimes even shame. Recently, Lauri was working to bring this issue out of the shadows and into the healing light."


Lauri’s diagnosis was bipolar disorder—mine is depression. We never really talked about the specifics of our respective conditions, but we were able to recognize each other’s quiet, solitary pain.

It’s like a secret club for those of us who share in the emotional, rocky, and often shame-filled, journey toward mental healing and wholeness. It’s a club, with few membership requirements, fewer rules and a private language.

Mental illness is not something one speaks of out loud in polite company. It’s the last shameful taboo, an invisible stigma. We talk among ourselves and trusted friends and family openly and honestly. In public, however, we put on our “functional” masks. Many of us can blend in with the “normal” and “ordinary” folks quite easily.

If we do talk about mental health issues outside our circles, we choose our words carefully, reluctant to share too much of our personal story with just anyone. Trust doesn’t come easily for us. We’ve heard what the public thinks of mental illness.

My family called it “moody.” As my mom once told me, “We never knew what to do with you, what would set you off. You were so touchy.” When she said it, years ago, I admit, I was offended, even hurt. But looking back after a lot of healing, I understand why my family felt that way. I was not always easy to live with. I’ve often felt like I held the world’s pain on my shoulders. I felt responsible when it rained on family camping trips, when my parents argued, when my brother died, when babies died in Africa…

I have felt like a mess most of my life, like a swirling mass of emotions, ready to either implode into self-loathing or explode with the force of an uncontrolled rage. Although my so called “bad days” are fewer and further between, I still feel like that sometimes.

Irritable, cold, aloof, gloomy, lazy, slothful, selfish, overly sensitive, drama queen, problem child, demanding…are only a few of the not-so-flattering terms used to describe people who continually deal with depression and other related mental issues—not to mention the courser, crueler terms used.

Slang terms like “schitzo,” “psycho,” “crazy,” “insane,” “lunatic,” “deranged,” “demented,” “wacko,” and “maniac”—as in “homicidal maniac”: these are used for the more debilitating and harder to treat conditions like schizophrenia, dissociative disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Such slang has even crept into “normal” conversation between “ordinary people”: “Are you nuts?” “You’re insane!” “I must be hallucinating.” “You’re delusional.” “I’m just being paranoid.” “Pay no attention to those voices in your head.”

Is it any wonder the 60 million Americans who are afflicted with some form on mental illness every year don’t talk openly outside our inner circles of support? According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), that’s one out of every four adults and one out of every 10 children.

One thing I admired about Lauri was her advocacy for mental health care. Within the past few years, she had grown stronger in voicing her concerns about the shroud of mystery and shame surrounding mental health issues. She had begun to talk about it in small groups, like Sunday school classes. A couple of years ago, she attended a spiritual writing retreat I co-led and wrote a riveting piece about an experience she had with the mental health industry.

Just as recently as this past fall, she wrote an article for our church’s newsletter about the need for mental health awareness and care. She had attended a Sunday school class on race relations and the progress this country has made over the past few decades in that area. She wrote that in the class she “wondered aloud how the strides made in the past fifty years [on race relations] compare to another form of social injustice: the stigma attached to the mentally ill. This issue is near and dear to my heart, for I have a front row seat as a consumer of mental health services…. I would also like to request [that] you say a prayer for all those whose lives are complicated by this often ‘invisible’ illness.”

Rev. Jennie addressed this in her eulogy, saying,
"What Lauri had in mind with this article was to take the first step in opening up a conversation about mental health and well-being. She wanted to send a message of hope and encouragement to anyone out there who also suffers from mental illness—or who loves someone suffering from mental illness. She wanted people to find the help they need and to have the freedom to stand up and say without fear, ‘I am who I am.’ True to her nurse’s calling, Lauri wanted to bring healing into the pain and brokenness of our hurting world. I believe she would want us to continue this mission. So I chose to bring her struggle out into the light, that others might hear Lauri’s message. Be who you are. Stay strong. Keep fighting. Never give up."


When Lauri’s article appeared in our church newsletter, I sort of glossed over it and said to myself, “Good for her!” But I promptly set it aside, and went on about my life. When I heard that Lauri had died, I reread the piece. My grief for the loss of my friend was greatly increased by recognizing what we all had lost in Lauri—an advocate for mental health education and care.

My grief was compounded by my own lack of a public voice on this issue. While I had always intended to write about my own experience with depression, I somehow never got around to it. I’ve shared some incredibly personal things in my writing and preaching, but nothing about my depression. I wondered why that was.

Is my depression so different from my diabetes? I have been willing to openly share about my physical health issues, why not my mental health issues? It comes back around to the shame factor—I didn’t want to admit what seemed to me to be my greatest weakness.

But depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or any other mental disorder is no more a weakness than heart disease, cancer, diabetes or any other physical condition. It’s just not. There is no more need for shame or silence.

Life is both exquisitely beautiful and excruciatingly painful, often at the same time. Lauri knew that, I know that, and so do so many, people living with mental illness. It is a struggle—day by day, and sometimes even moment by moment. It takes a lot of energy, strength and courage just to stay above the fray. It takes determination, tenacity and intentionality to thrive and live well. Believe me when I tell you, it’s worth all the effort it takes to be well.

NAMI is one source that offers support for people with mental illness and those who care for them. Hundreds of state and local affiliates have volunteers who “provide essential and free education, advocacy and support group programs” (www.nami.org). The Tri-County chapter of NAMI serves Woodford, Tazewell and Peoria counties. The local contact number is 309-231-3855.

From the website: “NAMI is…the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI advocates for access to services, treatment, supports and research and is steadfast in its commitment to raise awareness and build a community for hope for all of those in need.”

If you are someone who lives with a mental illness, or a person who cares for someone with a mental illness, I urge you to seek information and support. Let us pledge together to build on Lauri Hinrichsen’s legacy of advocating for mental health and wholeness.

Originally published in the Wiidford County Journal as a Frankly Speaking column Marrch 28, 2013.



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