A mothers response: Eating disorders take a toll

by Anne Weiher

(This blog is authored by the mother of Liz LeRoux, who wrote the previous blog about her eating disorder. Liz’s blog is a couple years old. Anne’s reflections are current.)

When Liz wrote her blog about her eating disorder, I truly thought that once she settled in Boulder, had loving family around her and a chance to start over, her life would change. Little did I know how tenacious eating disorders can be. Eating disorders are the leading cause of death from mental illness, and over the last three and a half years that Liz has been with us, she has almost died at least four times and coded once.  It has been a very trying time with many ups and downs. It has taken a toll on the entire family.

For me, when she is doing well, life seems to go smoothly and I breathe a bit easier, but when she doesn’t do well, it affects me greatly. Everyone tells me to detach, that I can’t fix her problems, to use tough love and kick her out of the house. As a mother, I just cannot do that.  I cannot give up hope that she will be able to get some kind of job, an independent living arrangement and friends who will support her. I never thought I’d be in this situation with a 41-year-old daughter living with us. I know my life has not been shattered in the way hers has been, but the helplessness I feel is overwhelming.

We’ve tried three types of eating disorder treatments, an alternative treatment and a long-term stay in a dual-diagnosis program. Nothing seems to work. We have been fortunate that we can afford these treatments, but they have taken their toll both financially and physically. I do not know what will happen to her when we can no longer work or are not physically here to support her. She doesn’t seem to qualify for disability but I wonder if she can truly be self supporting.

I try, sometimes with more success than others, to remember that God has a plan for her. That she is loved by Something greater than me. She is a wonderful young woman, trapped in a disease not of her own making. As I write this piece, a part of my heart is breaking and it seems it will never be whole. However, I pray that I can continue to hold her in my heart and love her in a way that helps her deal with these demons.

Anne Weiher, Mother of Liz LeRoux

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

Advice from a recovering anorexic

by Liz LeRoux

Eating disorders destroy lives.

It’s that simple whether you die from them, or you lead a life of seclusion in constant fear of your weight. I’m a recovering anorexic and it destroyed my life. I was hospitalized many times and went to treatment twice. I just wasn’t ready to get well. I lived a life of isolation, depression, anxiety, pain and loneliness. I finally hit rock bottom when my marriage fell apart. I knew I had to get healthy and I knew that God had bigger dream for me.  I am now almost at my goal weight, have gotten my medications rights, and for the first time in 20 years I feel happy, healthy, committed and strong.

I didn’t get to recovery easily and I still have issues with food. I will probably have that problem for some time.  I had a great team working for me: a therapist, a psychiatrist, a nutritionist, and a doctor.  I also had the love and support of my family. Although they were loving and supportive, they were also scared.  So was I.  This was a total change from the life I’d been living for 20 years; if you can really say I had a life.

If you’re suffering from an eating disorder or you know someone who is, my best advice is to seek help. Remember God has bigger and better plans for you. If you know someone with an eating disorder, help them find that help. Love and support them, but don’t be a doormat.  Encourage them to live a new life. A life that is happy thrilling, and wonderful. Walk with them, force them to see the people they need to see to aid them in their recovery. Do anything you can do to get them back into life. Because when you are in recovery, whether through many of the treatment centers or with a good team, your life can truly change.

Liz LeRoux

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

What a box lunch can do!

by Rev Alan Johnson

During a box lunch at the White House Conference on Mental Health in June 2013, a psychiatrist and a faith leader began a conversation about the interface between mental health and faith. Given that the psychiatrist was the president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, Paul Summergrad, and the faith leader was Rev. Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, a leader in the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition, energy erupted as they met for the first time over lunch.

Their initial conversation led to 45 people from across the country coming together for a one-day event, “Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership Steering Committee Meeting,” just over a year later, on Friday, July 11, 2014 at the national offices of the APA in Arlington, Va. Participants represented a strong balance between psychiatrists and faith leaders.

The goal of the meeting was “to discuss and discern how religious and psychiatric leaders might work more effectively with one another to address the prevalence of mental illness in our society and stigma associated with mental health conditions.”

The meeting’s “fire in the belly” came from a talk by Patrick Kennedy. His urgent charge to us, his passionate plea, was for us to take leadership on addressing stigma about mental illness and act to adopt parity legislation. Sharing his personal and his family’s history of speaking out and acting for those who are marginalized and minimalized, he beckoned us to be like those who participated in the Freedom Rides or those who integrated the luncheon counters by holding demonstrations. The whole room was ablaze with promise and call. Such conviction is needed to propel our work.

My sense is that the combined wisdom and experience of the group may have been well beyond where some of the presentations took us.

Presentations about the resources presently available from each of the sides on the bridge, APA and faith leaders, were helpful. APA does offer resources on faith/spirituality/religion, and the faith proponents do offer resources about mental health. I, as a faith leader, was unaware that the APA had these resources and I am pretty sure that APA members don’t know about the faith resources. So these presentations were a step in the right direction.

Above all, it was a ground-breaking meeting. It was energizing and very positive. It was intensive and expansive. It was rich and textured.

I came to the meeting with high expectations, perhaps unrealistically high considering it was just a one-day conference. My disappointments could have been addressed with more time for networking and for probing questions, more time for in-depth conversations about the language we were using. Do psychiatrists and clergy mean the same thing when they refer to “spirituality” and “recovery,” for example? We needed time to explore the prejudices and misconceptions we each hold about the others’ work and to dispel the distrust that has permeated some of our interactions in the past. We needed time to discuss the current interface between our professions and what our vision for the future might look like. Had there been more time available for structured conversations, I am sure greater connections could have been made. If real encounter is to happen, there needs to be profound listening and transparent responses. And that takes time.

In reality, the meeting was a baby step in terms of action, while also marking a huge leap in setting the stage for further work. I caught a glimpse of what the future could look like.

It all started with a box lunch. Who knows where it will end?

The Rev. Alan Johnson

Chair, Interfaith Network on Mental Illness (www.inmi.us)

Chair, United Church of Christ Mental Health Network (www.mhn-ucc.blogspot.com)

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

Is it really safe to forget mental illness?

by Rev. Alan Johnson

Is it really safe to forget mental illness?

This is a probing question that was prompted by a conversation with the Rev. Pat Bruns of First United Methodist Church of Boulder (FUMC).  FUMC has begun promoting a mental health ministry, and Rev. Bruns agreed to share how he and his congregation are addressing this serious issue.

Rev. Bruns said that “all churches have experiences with persons who are living with mental health issues. Our church is a large, solid structure, and I believe some people are drawn to the church simply because of the strength of the building. I don’t know about any studies about this, but some people come to draw upon the obvious strength of the structure to build up their own inner strength, especially when there are mental health challenges that come along.”

However, it was the Newtown, Conn. elementary school shooting that garnered the church’s will to address the issue of mental health.  “Although it was mostly the media that conflated mental illness and violence, which is very unfortunate, it did give a boost to the beginnings of our church’s mental health ministry,” Pat said. “Our intention is to address how to be in partnership with other faith communities and organizations to support people with mental illnesses and their families and friends. In a smaller way, we hope to advocate for changes in our community to overcome what isolates and stigmatizes people who have mental illness.”

“I was surprised when I realized that, like us, many faith communities have not had a strong active engagement in mental health ministries. This is not meant as a judgment, but it indicated to us that we are right in the mix with others who might be addressing these concerns, too.” A small group of FUMC members gathered to explore ways to expand their vision of a mental health ministry. They began by hosting the Mental Health First Aid class (MHFA) taught by the Mental Health Partners and offering the dramatic story-telling, “How I Learned to Talk,” by Diana Hoguet.  Both of these programs were very well received.  “The MHFA was one of the best one-day experiences I have ever had,” reflected Pat.  “The program, with a stellar workbook, honors the complexity of the issues of mental illness while also not leaving one hopeless. It brings insight and hopefulness about how to engage with people with these issues.”

The presentation by Diana Hoguet offered a “story of openness and is a powerful invitation to be honest about our own stories. Especially as a Christian minister, the story echoes the Christian story of life and struggle, of suffering and goodness, and eventually tells me about redemptive suffering.  I would hope the presentation can continue to be offered.”

Bruns cautioned that there can be obstacles to developing a mental health ministry in a faith community, too. First, “focusing on institutional survival, the day-to-day challenges can make one lose sight of the broader vision.  Mental health issues can be easily put to the sidelines.  There seem to be no immediate consequences in not facing this. It is safe to forget it,” he said. Second, “it takes acts of intention, to pay attention” to the hurts, the silent suffering, and the isolation that comes with mental illness. Third, “there is also limited knowledge about mental illness among clergy,” he states. “Even when clergy are trying to be pastoral, if their training has not prepared them, they can be burned themselves by getting into situations that are over their head. That may lead to avoiding the issue completely.”

Every faith community will find challenges as it searches for ways to address mental health issues. It can do so by avoiding it, by forgetting about it, or by finding ways that can bring awareness and education to the congregation so that the reality of mental health challenges can be welcomed, supported, included, and engaged.  FUMC will continue to further and enrich its mental health ministry by building partnerships and being aware and attentive to mental health struggles within their congregation.

Alan Johnson

Chair of the Board of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

Mental Health and the Church

by Anne Weiher

I must admit that I approached the recent conference on Mental Health and the Church with a bit of trepidation, for I grew up in a very conservative and fundamentalist church.  I was pleasantly surprised by the opening words of Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church and Bishop Kevin Vann of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. There was a clear and consistent call throughout the day that the time is right for the church to take the lead in providing good, educated support to those who struggle with mental health problems.  This was clearly to be a day of hope.  The message to churches everywhere was that Jesus had a ministry of healing.  A third of his ministry centered around healing. Much research has shown that the first person one seeks out when they are in a mental crisis is the clergy and most of them are ill-equipped to handle such a situation, hence the need for education of the church staff and lay leaders is essential.  The churches need to publically stand with those with mental illness.  It was a powerful beginning.

Almost every speaker spoke to the need for a four-pronged approach to mental health:  spiritual, medical, psychological, and relational. The emphasis was that we are all broken in the sight of God, but that our chemistry does not equal our character; illness is not our identity; and our struggles do not define you. I may have struggled over some of the words used, but the concepts could be translated into words I understand.  Those of us who live with mental illness are not our illness. We are indeed persons first.

The conference was sold out.  Three thousand-two hundred people filled the main worship center and there was an overflow crowd.  The webcast was expected to reach another 30,000 people around the world.  We have put into practice many of the ideas presented in the conference at the church I attend, First Congregational Church in Boulder, Colo., but I was blown away by the magnitude of this outreach. If people in faith communities take even a small nugget or a seed gets planted in their faith community about the need for the church to embrace those with mental health challenges and their families, it can truly change the world.

Anne Weiher,

INMI board member

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

In prayer there is no stigma

by Susan Williams

While at Mass the other day, I took particular note of all the bowed heads, the closed eyes and folded hands, people in serious and fervent prayers to God.

I began to wonder how many were quietly asking for help with a mental illness with which they or a family member are battling.  People, who in the quiet space of prayer are speaking with great passion and urgency to God for help, for a cure, for patience, for hope.  In prayer there is no stigma; they use the words that are not spoken in public and face their fears and despair.  In this closed time of connection to God, they are free to state what they won’t say out loud. They find great comfort, or at least acceptance, in saying the words, naming the illness and despair that they fight to gloss over when the prayers are complete.  Although, the prayers are never complete.

Then, as the heads rise, there is the exhale of coming back to the community around them.  Of putting on the stoic face that shows everything is under control.

We are now looking at establishing a mental health ministry at our church.  Hopefully, we will take this on and people will find a place of help, hope and community.  But, this may take a long time.  Until then, people’s prayers remain in silence.

The prayers may give comfort, or at least the sense that we are doing something when we feel there is little we can do.  Prayer is so powerful, and it is part of a much bigger equation.  An equation that includes  clinical trials, research, individual roads and most importantly, the intangible essence of hope.

Our prayers may be, “Please, Lord, cure him/her of their mental illness.”  But perhaps we should ask  “help him/her find the strength to seek help and help me provide the right encouragement.”  We ask for them to be cured and for them to wake up whole and well. But the road is long and the mountain tough to climb.  We continue to pray.

“Comfort those who live with the darkness of depression. May we be a light in the darkness for them. Teach us to avoid false cheerfulness, and instead give us wisdom to know how to help our friends and family who struggle in this way to come up for air. To see, again, your goodness. Lord, watch over those who are, even now, contemplating suicide. Stop their hands. Send someone to intervene.

Bring the comfort only you can bring to those who have lost a loved one to mental illness. And use us to bring comfort. May we, your church, be a healing presence, a safe community, a strong advocate for the mentally ill.

Thank you for the assurance that you do not let go. That you are always with us. May we in turn extend that hope to every person we encounter.


Prayer by Deacon Greg Kandra

Susan Williams

INMI Board Member

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

Which one do I listen to?

by Rev Alan Johnson

One of the most significant conversations I had while a chaplain at the Children’s Hospital in Denver was with a 14-year-old girl who was in the eating disorder unit.

I was covering for one of our staff when the girl noticed I was wearing the Livestrong bracelet. She said, “I heard there was a Godstrong bracelet. I sure would like one for myself and my girlfriend.”  I asked, “What would that mean for you?”  “Well, it is like I have a voice on this shoulder telling me that I am fat, fat, fat, and on my other shoulder a voice is saying I am to eat good food, stay healthy, get well. Sometimes I don’t know which one to listen to.”

That got my attention. That night I searched the web and sure enough, I found that bracelet and ordered 15 of them.

When the bracelets came in, I returned to her room and we talked about those voices and I gave her five of the bracelets. On each one the word “Godstrong” was visible along with “Eph. 6:10-11.” That verse, from Ephesians in the New Testament of the Bible, reads, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God so you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  We talked about the strength that God gives her so she can listen to the voice that leads her to life and to love, love for herself. That was almost 10 years ago and to this day I wear that bracelet myself and I do tell the story of this amazing girl who I hope continues to believe in herself, her worth, her belovedness. I hope she is listening to the divine power of God which is a strength and a guide for her.

Another voice will be heard on February 23, 2104 — speaking about her eating disorder and recovery. Mara Abbott will give a talk about “The worst idea that ever made perfect sense.”  Mara Abbott is a professional cyclist “whose career trajectory would have appeared perfect to those none the wiser. She was one of those who found cycling as a training method for something else, and rocketed through the ranks to the sport’s very pinnacle. She won the pink jersey at the Giro Donne, the first American to win the fabled race, as well as a second national road championship and overall victories at the Tour of the Gila and Cascade Classic. However, somewhere in the tumult she began to lose her way, to lose sight of her goals, her aspirations, and her sense of purpose. Abbott hoped to simply fade away. Mara sank into a self-sabotage that saw her waste away, physically, by consciously under-eating so that her veiled anorexia would slowly reduce her to a point of competitive irrelevance.”  (from Velo Magazine, July 2013)

Mara will be speaking during the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness Annual Meeting, February 23, starting at 5 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, 1128 Pine Street, Boulder.  Light refreshments will be served, including some provided by a James Beard Award winner, and a brief business meeting will also be held. Please join us.

For more information, email i[email protected]

Rev. Alan Johnson

INMI Cofounder and Chair

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

On the path

by Eve Wesson

I am on a path to finding my faith/spirituality, and I am so grateful to come across individuals who seem firmly grounded in their spirituality and relationship to a higher power. Talking with those individuals gives me strength and a belief that there is a purpose bigger than myself. These thoughts ground me in times of distress, though it wasn’t always that way.

It took me a long time to feel comfortable being around religion. I would shy away from conversations about religion and spirituality. Since then, I have learned that hiding from that conversation is not helpful for anyone, especially those who struggle with a mental illness. Faith should and can be expressed in many different ways, and the more we talk about it and find community through it, the more opportunities for growth and healing can arise.

I’ve witnessed first hand how powerful and healing faith can be for individuals. It took courage to listen to others struggle with their spirituality and to be open to look inside myself for what it meant to me.

When I went on my birthright trip to Israel, I stumbled upon a Sabbath gathering. Hand in hand, a group of men danced in a circle, each absorbed by the music, their praise to G-d becoming louder and louder. Every word memorized as if etched in their minds. I learned about these celebrations of the Sabbath in Hebrew school when I was young and was delighted to witness their ritual. These swirling dancing men rapturously embodied their songs and teachings. With each step, twist, or jump they gave themselves to G-d. Judaism is their center, and the music becomes their lives. Nothing could dissuade their song. I was consumed by the energy, filled with craving to join the circle. Soon more men surged into the ring, exploding with emotion. One man’s eyes were closed as he bellowed his thanks. All the men had twinkling eyes and a wide encompassing smile as they celebrated the Sabbath.  These men were devoted to their religion, while I was left standing, separate.

I think about that feeling of standing apart and being so overwhelmed by their wonderful expression of faith. I so craved that feeling and wondered what it would be like.

Now, I no longer experience being outside of that circle and am on my journey to be part of a faith community. I may not be part of their particular tradition, but I can build and craft my own expression. I have my own spirituality and it grows every day. I have shed the need for it to fit into a box and look a certain way.  I am encouraged by others’ steadfastness and embrace talking about it, building connections and bridges that will last a lifetime.

I’ve learned that faith/spirituality looks different for everyone and does not have to be part of something organized. Faith gives hope, provides support and brings comfort to so many. Including me.

Eve Wesson

INMI intern

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

Unpacking Stigma

Stigma is amazingly powerful.

We know that the stigma surrounding mental illnesses keeps a huge number of people from seeking treatment. Stigma also keeps people from sharing their stories with others in their churches, their workplaces and their neighborhoods. As a result, people with mental illnesses frequently don’t get the support we offer freely to people in our church communities who are ill with other types of illnesses. Unless your congregation is way outside the norm, you probably don’t include people with mental illnesses in your prayers for healing. You probably don’t send them get-well cards, and you probably don’t bring them casseroles when they return home after a hospitalization.

There is nothing rational about this type of stigma. Our brains, like our other organs, can be beset with problems that cause them to function less than optimally. Like heart disease and diabetes (a pancreas disorder), brain disorders typically can be managed effectively with some combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes. But a person with mental illnesses has to overcome his or her fear of being stigmatized in order to seek treatment and find a path to recovery.

Before we can uproot the pervasive stigma in our culture, we need to understand the basics: Exactly how do you define stigma? What are its components? What are the primary effects of stigma? And most importantly, what strategies and tactics are most effective in reducing stigma?

These are the topics covered in a report produced by the Scattergood Foundation called Stigma and Behavioral Health. The report is well researched and thoroughly backed by an impressive list of academic studies and articles. While it does not specifically address faith communities, we can certainly take their recommendations and put them to work in our congregations.

Need some help figuring out how to apply stigma reduction techniques to your church? Explore the resources available on the INMI website and the Mental Health Ministries website. And if you’d like advice about your specific church’s situation, contact us at [email protected]

Joanne Kelly

INMI cofounder and vice chair

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.

Taking First Steps Toward a Mental Health Ministry

by Rev. Alan Johnson

When I was a minister in a local church, I faced lots of challenges, not the least of which was the time pressure and the list of things that need to be done that is never completely empty. There is always more to  do than time and energy allow. Sound familiar?

That is one of the reasons why paying attention to people who are affected by mental illness is not high on the priority list of many clergy. Follow up with people who are experiencing depression. Learn more about bipolar disorder. Initiate a spiritual support program in your church for persons living with a mental illness and/or their families. Volunteer to be part of the local National Alliance on Mental Illness. Attend local educational programs about mental illness. Sit down and talk with the members of your faith community who work in mental health care. Select a couple people in your faith community to focus on mental health and find ways to extend your hospitality to those who are affected by mental illness. These are among the possible the possible first steps you can take.

However, many clergy do not follow this path.  Unless of course, they  find themselves involved in a congregant’s mental health crisis. Even then, it is unusual for a faith community leader to have ready access to the information for making a referral, let alone understand enough about the mental health crisis to offer some positive steps to take. Realizing that 1 out of 4 people in your faith community is affected by mental illness, being aware, is the first step.  We also know that clergy are the first ones that a majority of people who are affected by mental illness turn to for support and understanding. Being equipped helps you minister appropriately.

The good news: Many resources are available to help you. Specifically, this Caring Clergy Project website (for example, see the video on starting a spiritual support group in your faitth community), the NAMI.org website and NAMI FaithNet.  These websites are based on  the best information available to date on mental health issues. I encourage you to peruse these as well as stay tuned on this blog for more connection.

And I’d love to hear what you are doing in your congregation to provide support and hospitality to people with mental illnesses and their families. What would you recommend as best practices for clergy who want to take a first step in developing a mental health ministry in their congregation?

Alan Johnson,

Interfaith Network on Mental Illness and Caring Clergy Project

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.