By Anne Millington
The families of behavioral health patients can often feel like people at sea, doing their best to navigate the challenges of their loved one’s illness. Behavioral health issues are often difficult to diagnose, challenging to manage, and resistant to cure, and families often find themselves struggling to manage their loved one’s ever-changing and complicated symptoms. As challenges continue, behavioral health families experience tempests of feeling, including denial, anger, shame, regret, hope, love, frustration, burnout, and all kinds of shoulda-woulda-couldas. I recall the look of disbelief and denial on the face of a father confronted by his teenage son’s diagnosis of schizophrenia. I also recall the anguish of a son at the time of his father’s death, defeated that he was never able to find a cure for his father’s psychosis.
To navigate a loved one’s behavioral health issues, families require a lot of support and guidance. Proper medical attention is needed to diagnose illnesses as accurately as possible and manage symptoms. Behavioral health counselors and social workers are needed to help manage family dynamics and locate supportive resources. Support from extended family, friends, and community is also critical.
Where there are physical and emotional injuries, there are also spiritual injuries, and as pastoral caregivers we are called to minister to these sensitive and often painful places. Behavioral health families are certainly not alone in experiencing stormy weather. Indeed, in the Gospels we find Jesus’ disciples at sea during a storm so furious they feared they would perish. Scared and overwhelmed, they were astonished that Jesus, also aboard, remained soundly asleep, exhibiting that “peace of God that passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). As Jesus demonstrates, peace is possible for us, regardless of weather, and I believe this peace is available to every human being of every faith background and belief. As ministers, we can help families heal by guiding them to locate this peace and claim it for themselves.
We can begin by “building the boat,” forming, through our listening presence and support, a container to hold them and keep them afloat during whatever they are navigating. Unlike so many in our fast-paced, understaffed, insurance-company-driven world of health care, we can approach those we serve with no goal beyond listening. Our skills at active listening give families the time, space, and support to tell their stories, to speak their truth, to share their deepest feelings about what they are experiencing. Often they have been holding it all in for quite some time, in their focus on caring for their family members’ needs.
Early on in my pastoral ministry, I recall listening to a woman in the throes of managing her child’s mental illness. Once she began talking she talked and talked and talked, one word tumbling out after another. Initially, I felt compelled to say something clever or to reassure her in some way, but after a few minutes I gave up, relaxed, and just let her words flow, supporting her nonverbally by nodding my head and by gazing at her with empathy and concern. Finally, she told me she felt better than she had felt in a long time, and that she felt a marked sense of relief and renewal. By having as much time as she needed to express herself, she was able to achieve a catharsis formerly inhibited by the time and agenda constraints of caring for her son.
Once families have the space and safety to pour out their hearts, we then facilitate peace by helping them name and explore the depths of their feelings. I remember speaking with a mother furious that her daughter had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In sitting with her fury, she noted her own struggle with mild schizophrenic symptoms, and together we explored how her anger was masking the sadness and guilt she felt over the notion that her daughter may have inherited this illness from her. When we bring to the surface and name all troubling feelings, these feelings begin to lose their power over us, and a space opens in the soul where increased peace may enter.
Once deep feelings have been recognized and named, possible avenues toward peace naturally emerge. Unmet needs can be identified and remedied; God’s calling can be discerned. A woman I know has felt angry and defeated by her husband’s unwillingness to get help for his depression, but she has managed to find solace in playing competitive tennis. One couple found peace around their adult daughter’s bipolar condition by mentally moving on with their lives, continuing to support her, and yet also making some time for travel and other interests. Families may need to grieve their broken dreams, put firm boundaries in place, or perhaps rekindle old friendships and interests. Although families may not be able to fix their loved one’s illness, peace takes root in their hearts as they access God’s ways of fulfillment, deep meaning, and even joy in life amid dealing with behavioral health illness.
Regardless of what issues a family currently faces, we know all too well that life is an ongoing series of challenges. If we live for the day that a certain problem or challenge is resolved, we find only that another has taken its place. But I believe that God provides in each difficulty some sort of opportunity for growth, and, most important, God makes it possible for us to live peaceful, fulfilling lives amid our ever-changing challenges. Our continual task is to locate and cultivate God’s way of peace in our hearts, in every kind of weather. The families of behavioral health patients, in their profound struggles, have profound opportunities to grow in this way.
Anne Millington is director of pastoral care at Beth Israel Deaconess Milton Hospital in Milton, MA.