The Nobel Peace Prize and World Mental Health Day: What Do They Have In Common?

Malala Yousafzai at the Global Education First Initiative anniversary eventCE - Comissão de Educação, Cultura e Esporte

As you may have heard, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to two people, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, and Kailash Satyarthi  of India.  A Muslim, and a Hindu, who fight for the rights of those who have no voice, those who are exploited and denied the right to a basic education.  (Read more here).

And today, October 10, 2014, is World Mental Health Day.  The Day is dedicated to and focused on raising awareness about those who suffer from schizophrenia.  Schizophrenia has long been misunderstood by the masses,  In fact, as I talked about recently a post , stigma towards this kind of illness has not subsided in recent years, but actually increased.


What we often fail to realize, or think much about, is how much a problem mental illness is in the developing world.  Just as child trafficking and exploitation run rampant and in so many parts of the world women are still treated as property, so are people of all ages struggling with mental illness who have little access to support and treatment.

Stereotypes prevail that say people stay stuck in their poverty because they are lazy or have sub par character and morals, and others along the same line.  If they just had more ambition, I’ve heard people say, they can get out of their current position in life.    There are obviously numerous complex factors that influence the cyclical nature of poverty, but a huge component is the triggering and exacerbation of mental illness in such environments.

Chronic stress, poor nutrition, abuse, lack of prospects, all of these and more contribute greatly to the numbers of mentally ill among those in poverty stricken situations and the developing countries.  Even when treatment options are available, they are often culturally inappropriate or not far reaching enough to provide adequate help.

What this all comes down to is a matter of education.  We need more Malalas and Kailashes in the world to fight for those who don’t have voices.  We need to stop putting on blinders that help us avoid what makes us uncomfortable and become very aware of the desperate inequalities still going on throughout our world, even just a few blocks away.

So, may I encourage you, do your part….learn more about mental illness, and help pass on the facts to others.  Challenge the stereotypes and myths….and, help erase the words “If they only tried harder…” from the minds of more Americans and those economically fortunate in the world,

Seeking to fully live,


Ever Been Here? Yeah, Me Too.


Some Surprising Statistics About Stigma

Keep calm and talk about Mental Health #mentalhealth #awareness #stigma Like -> or for more Information on trauma & dissociation
Today I want to talk about some of the stigma that still lingers in, or rather pervades, our society.  You might have seen the rampant posts on Facebook about suicide following the unfortunate death of Robin Williams.  In one particular post I saw, someone wrote that they didn’t believe stigma was nearly the problem that it was in the past.

I was a little surprised by this comment, but then pondered whether stigma seems like a bigger deal to me because I actually have multiple mental illness diagnoses.  Perhaps because it is such a huge focus in my life that stigma seems to loom greater.

So, I did a little searching to find out the status of mental illness stigma in our current world, and actually found some disheartening numbers.  Take a look at these:

  • According to the Journal of Social Health and Behavior from just a few years back, 68% of Americans don’t want a mentally ill person marrying into their family, and 58% don’t want a mentally ill person in their workplace.
  • The American Psychological Association reports that stigma is actually increasing in the US, with Americans twice as likely to associate the mentally ill with violence as compared to 1950.
  • According to the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, mentally ill persons are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than the average non-mentally ill American.

In February, Newsweek released an article on the huge amount of institutional stigma taking place on many college campuses.  (Please take the time to read it).  While incidents of psychological crises are increasing among young people, colleges are not responding well, and unfortunately, this only exacerbates the stigmatizing force that is already highly prevalent among 16-19 year olds.

One might think that since we are talking about mental illness more than ever, the stigma surrounding it would decrease.  There are several problems still remaining though.  The first is that there is still quite a bit of ignorance regarding the different types of mental illness.  For example, many people still believe that schizophrenia is a split personality disorder and that the majority of schizophrenic patients are likely to be violent.

A second issue is now that people realize that mental illness can actually be genetic, there is a tendency to stigmatize and socially distance oneself from a person with bad genetics rather than a person who has been adversely affected by social and environmental factors.    Research performed by a professor of psychology from the University of Melbourne discovered that people were less likely to blame mentally ill people for their genetics, but more likely to doubt their recovery and to exclude them from social activities.    Basically a mixed bag:  “We don’t think it’s your fault you’re crazy, but we still don’t trust you and don’t want you around.”

A study performed in by Indiana University in conjunction with Columbia University found similar results.  They determined according to a survey that 67% of Americans attributed mental illness to neurobiology compared to only 54% in 1996.  However, the report, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, revealed that this shift in belief did nothing to improve stigma, and if anything, made the problem worse.

So, this is post is not to be a downer, even though  the fight to advocate for the mentally ill can be complicated and messy, especially when one includes cultural and economic factors.   Rather, let this be an encouragement for us to remember that the fight to alleviate stigma  is not over, and the more we educate people instead of preach to the choir, the more positive results we will see.

Seeking to fully live,


A Point of Social Ambiguity: What To Call Our “Partners”


Today’s post has less to do with our society’s collective mental health and more to do with something that causes me personal mental angst.   It’s probably really petty in the overall scheme of things, but I think we need to clear something up to help us all avoid faux paus.  Consider the following:

Partner:  This term drives me nuts lately.  It is entirely ambiguous in our culture and I never know what people I am not intimately acquainted with are referring to.  It could me 1).  a business partner  2). a partner in some other endeavor, such as doubles tennis 3). someone who has been selected as a long term mate in a heterosexual relationship, or 4). someone who has been selected as a mate in a homosexual relationship.

Basically this word sets me up with four ways to fail.  In a world where marriage is not always the first choice for heterosexual couples, and gay couples don’t always favor or feel legitimized to use “husband” or “wife”,  I really having to make assumptions as to what kind of partner a person is referring to.  What if I mistakenly assume someone is gay and they are really offended by it?  What if I think someone is talking about their business partner and is offended when I don’t associate the appropriate connections when they are in fact a gay couple?  What if I think someone is gay but they are really just in a committed heterosexual relationship?

Boyfriend/Girlfriend: I haven’t seen very many reliable substitutes for this word.  There’s the traditional “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” labels, but I’ve met many adults who abhor these terms, identifying them with the adolescent population.

Significant Other: Then there is the “significant other” qualifier, which is about as ambiguous as partner.  In our world today, a significant other could be anything from a lover to a favorite pet to a piece of key lime pie.

Special Friend: There’s a member of my extended family who has been in a long term heterosexual relationship following the death of her husband.  She chooses to call him her “special friend.”    I get what she means, but this phrase always irks me, especially when I read her name in family funeral programs:  “So and so, with special friend: such and such”‘.  In my head I always hear  “This is my special fwend!”   I understand why she doesn’t want to use partner, because it could imply wrongly that she was gay, and sometimes because of the business partner connotation it can seem impersonal.  However, I want to save her from the implied label of “friend with benefits” or “this is my imaginary friend” ideas that are conjured up when using the special friend label.

I’ve decided we need to do something like the Native Americans from the far north who had like a billion different words for “snow”.   There’s the wet snow, the dry snow, this kind of snow, that kind of snow, and so on.    If we could develop words to describe succinctly every type of intimate relationship currently existing in our culture, then we could save ourselves from a lot of embarrassment and mislabeling.

I’m not hugely creative in the word development department, so if you have any great ideas, I’d love to read them.

Seeking as much un-ambiguity as possible,


A Story of The Sudan

South Sudan 022
If you know anything about the Sudan, their history, especially recently, has been tumultuous. They have suffered from civil war, ethnic strife, and religious tensions. South Sudan gained independence as a separate country in 2011, but not long after collapsed again into unrest.

My Ghanaian father, along with several other Ghanaian evangelists I know, have traveled to the Sudan in recent years to try and help the country recover from the trauma it has experienced. When I recently visited Ghana, my father, Christian, told me of a heartbreaking story.

Christian and his coworkers spent time among the youth of the Sudan, helping to teach them English and about Jesus. One of their exercises was to go through the alphabet and ask the children, age 5ish to 15ish, to come up with words that started with that particular letter. So, A= apple, b=baboon, those sorts of things. Christian and his friends discovered that whenever they reached the letter “K”, the kids would throw their arms up in the air and yell. And the word that was always associated with “K”: KILL.

The youngest generations of the Sudan are almost entirely consumed with PTSD. No one trusts anyone else, and any sign of friendship is understood as a invitation for manipulation and exploitation. Christian spoke of how difficult it was to break into the hearts of these emotionally bankrupt people. The one person he was able to become good friends with was actually a cripple who died not long ago. The man knew he had nothing to offer Christian, so if Christian wanted to be friends with him it must be a sincere off devoid of ulterior motives.

A study performed in 2004 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that already by then 48% of the Sudanese still living in the country had PTSD.  That was over 10 years ago, and life in the Sudan hasn’t settled down yet.   A study more recently published in 2012 in The Lancet revealed that among the refugee children from Darfur, a region in Western Sudan, 75% met the criteria for PTSD and 38% were diagnosed as being clinically depressed.    These numbers are staggering.

I now wonder, what is the hope for countries like the Sudan, who have been ravaged by war and human rights violations, to recover? When entire generations are scarred and don’t know what healthy emotions and wholeness are like? How are children taught to trust and to believe that the world is inherently good when all they have known of life is bloodshed and trauma and the death of family members? And more importantly, does the rest of the world even really care?

Seeking to fully live,

Culture Shock, Mental Health, and Staying Present

In August, I took my oldest son to visit some good friends (adopted family) in Ghana, West Africa.   I kept the trip to ten days because I didn’t want to overwhelm Xander in a place that is so unlike where we live, especially since he’s only seven.   I prepared him as much as I could before we left for the way things would be, and showed him lots of pictures depicting what he might see on our trip.

Needless to say, the first five days of our adventure were tough for him.  We flew to Ghana still both trying to recover from a wretched stomach bug that continued to plague us with cramps several days after we landed in Africa.   And, as we disembarked from our plane and entered the terminal in Accra, Xander looked at me and said, wide-eyed:  “Mom, you were right…there really are a lot of black people here!”   I’m still chuckling about the look he had on his face.

Xander’s first couple of days of Ghana were safe exploration within the confines of my Ghanaian dad’s yard.  However, when we left on a seven hour trip to his farm up in the mountains, Xander’s culture shock really began to kick in.  The mixture of being tired, recovering from a stomach bug, and being in a wildly unfamiliar and different place led him to spend the entire car ride hidden under a blanket in the back seat.  He avoided looking out the window at the scenery and interesting things we passed, choosing instead to force himself to sleep as much as possible.

My son’s initial experience in Ghana took me back to the time I had spent there years ago, and how I left Ghana the last time.   Let’s just say I was a whimpering, sniveling runt of a mess….on the inside of course…I had too much pride to let all of that come out.    The second time I went to live in Ghana I lived with Ghanaian families, seeing Americans only occasionally.  My plan was to stay for two years, but by the end of one semester I was really depressed, confused, lost, and in the throes of culture shock for sure.

Of course, I couldn’t come back openly admitting that Africa was too big for me.  So, I couched my return in rational excuses:  the church denomination I’m working with is way too stifling, Ghanaians don’t need any white missionaries as they are quite capable on their own, I’m getting in the way, I should go back to grad school and come back to Africa with a more valuable skill,  etc.     Saving face was important….I’d already been called a quitter enough times in life and really wanted to spare myself any more labeling.

What strikes me now is how differently I left Ghana that time over a decade ago, and how I came back this August.   I now had hours and hours of counseling under my belt, massive amounts of self awareness and insight compared to my early 20s, and was no longer burdened to the same degree by fear and doubt.

The thing that I did wrong the last time was that I wanted to avoid pain and discomfort.  If I didn’t know what was expected of me or how to interact with people it was easier to hide away under a figurative blanket in the back seat.  But in reality, all this did was make me more depressed, more unhappy.

What I knew this time, coming to Ghana with my son, was that when you feel discomfort, you’ve got to stay with it, feel it, probe it…not run.  Staying present in the moment that is the scariest is what will get you through, teach you the lessons you need to learn.  Because, I’ve also learned, God, the universe, whoever, will make sure and bring back around the same kinds of situations again and again until you learn the lesson…so you might as well spare yourself suffering and get it the first time.

In August, whenever I began to feel those pangs of culture shock coming back, I refused to let myself think about home, what is great and familiar about America, what I would be doing in the States.  Rather, I asked myself questions about what I was feeling, looking for the core issues at play, and forcing myself to stay present.

So, in light of all this, may I encourage you to learn to stay present in your own painful and uncomfortable times.  The boogeyman almost always seems scarier when we don’t look at him straight on.  Maybe this is something you can’t do by yourself and you need a safe person or counselor to stand by your side when you proceed,  but as I’m learning, staying in the moment and not avoiding pain and discomfort, can actually help decrease your suffering.  Go figure.

Seeking to fully live,


Free Mental Health Toolbox

tooloxI have ADD, which means staying organized is a real struggle for me.   I love order and having things in their place, but it is a challenge to keep things the way I like them.

Having been on a journey toward mental wholeness for almost fifteen years now, I have alot of medical and mental health professional history.  And, I’ve been on like a zillion different medications and dosages.  And I’ve had more than a few diagnoses and diagnostic tests.  Lots to keep track of.

The problem then lies in me keeping it all straight in my head or on paper.  When I don’t have a designated place to keep track of all of my mental information,  things get chaotic and important chunks of data get lost.  Which leads to my inevitable visits with the shrink saying, “Yes, I’m pretty sure I’ve been on that medication before, but I don’t remember when or what the dosage was.”

With today’s super speedy doctor’s appointments, where one basically has about fifteen minutes of the doctor’s attention, my ADD kicks into overdrive while I frantically try to remember all the pertinent information I should share, and I end up drawing complete blanks.

I also do ALOT of reading….like to the tune of at least 10 new Kindle books a month.    Many of them are really good and helpful, but alot are just fluff.  I’ve found that especially in referring good books to others, I need a place to record the books that have had the greatest impact on my journey, with a space to include those life changing quotes that I can never seem to track down after reading the book.

So, based on my own organization issues and dynamics of my mental health journey, I’ve created what I’m calling a mental health toolbox, entitled “My Journey Towards Mental Health.”    This printable pdf is a place to record any important information regarding your movement toward a healthier life in a way that is easily accessible, and provides a clear big picture of what you are striving for and where you’ve come from.

Toolbox pages include places to record significant or traumatic events in your personal or family history, your medical and mental health history, information gleaned from various inventories and evaluations, favorite books and quotes, goals, etc.

“My Journey Toward Mental Wholeness” is a free gift from me to help you on your own journey.  To get your own copy, click here.  Once you sign up to receive the toolbox, you will automatically receive any updated or improved editions as they are released.

Finally, I’d love to hear feed back and any suggestions that you may have for ways to improve the toolbox and make it more helpful.

Seeking to fully live,


When Heartbreak Makes You Crazy

My oldest son and I just returned from a week and a half long trip to visit my Ghanaian family in West Africa. (No, we were nowhere near the Ebola crisis). We had a great time, and despite a bit of culture shock on the part of my seven year old, the trip was a success. (We also just moved from New York to Massachusetts, and these two things combined are why I haven’t blogged in weeks.)

However, there is a person I met while there whose memory has been lingering with me. It’s a story of how mental illness can hit those we would never suspect in tragic ways. Here’s what happened:

One evening when the day was winding down, my Ghanaian parents had a visitor. I was quite perplexed by the way they interacted with her, because normally Africans are very hospitable and engaging, especially Ghanaians. This particular woman was invited in and sat on the couch, and she and my parents exchanged sporadic comments, but the whole dynamic was completely different than what I’d experienced there before.

I introduced myself to the woman, and she began to ask me questions. They seemed a little random, but I was used to that from past trips to Africa, where Ghanaians wanted to know about my life and America, sometimes coming up with off the wall questions.

As our conversation progressed, the questions got stranger. She asked where I was from, and when I told her the States, she asked if I had ever been to Russia. I responded no, that I hadn’t, and she said she had been to Moscow, though she thinks now she should have gone to Leningrad.

Next, she asked if I knew the Lewinsky family. I had no clue how to respond…was she referring to Monica? She also asked how the people in Maine were doing? I tried to be polite thought I was really confused…maybe she thought all of us white people knew each other?

Then the woman began to tell me that I need to contact someone in Moscow by the name of Sanuch Mahmoud, or something of the sort. Then she asked if I like fish. Then she asked if I wanted a gift, and what kind of gift I would like.

As I sat there getting more and more confused by really weird questions asked in a perfectly normal manner, I got distracted by something my son needed, and when I returned the woman had left the house.

My Ghanaian parents immediately explained the situation because they sensed that I had no clue what had just happened. This woman had been a long time member of their church, someone they described as a real lady, beautiful and elegant. Years before she had met a man in the church who was half American half Ghanaian, and against his mother’s wishes had gotten married. In time, she became pregnant, but had a miscarriage. This devastated her, and sparked the beginning of some mental issues. Apparently the husband either couldn’t deal with it or didn’t want to deal with it and left her for another woman, who he promptly had a baby with.

The woman literally went crazy from a broken heart. Her mind snapped and she spent the next two years in a mental hospital, where the psychiatrists could find no way to help her. At the time I met her, she was back living in the home of one of her relatives.

My Ghanaian parents described the behaviors that she exhibited since her breakdown. She would come to their house randomly asking if they had her keys, or wanting peanut butter or other things. She became convinced that she had done things she had never done, such as go to Moscow. And she was always obsessed with the children she never had…for example, she told my father that she thought my son resembled one of her kids.

The whole church family had been heartbroken over what happened to her, exacerbated by the fact that she no longer wanted to have anything to do with the church. No one seemed to have any way to reach past her delusional thinking, and instead resorted to just managing her behavior.

I know that this particular woman most certainly had tendencies toward mental illness before any of the tragedies in her life occurred, and they were just the spark that ignited it all. However, this was the first time I’ve met anyone personally who literally snapped because of a broken heart. And I came away initially angry at her husband for leaving her, but then trying to understand by remembering that much of Africa doesn’t have the best infrastructure for supporting families dealing with mental illness. He probably had no clue how to deal with his wife’s pain and illness.

I don’t have any great moral from this story, or any deep point other than sometimes life can really suck. I hurt for this woman who is imprisoned in her mind, and I get frustrated by the lack of answers to make it all better for her. I’m left with the consolation that love and compassion are the way through these messes, even if those messes aren’t tidied up in this life.

Seeking to fully live,

Robin Williams, A Sacrificial Life

Addio Robin... ci insegnavi calcio e poesia…

I read with the world yesterday that Robin Williams has died, apparently from his own hand.  And like much of the world, I’m shocked and devastated.

I certainly didn’t know him personally.  The closest claim to fame I can offer is that apparently my mother once met his brother at a conference.  Nevertheless, this is one of those cases where in losing an actor, one feels like they’ve lost a friend or companion.  I mean, hasn’t he been there in cinematic episodes throughout my entire life?  I cut my teeth on Mork and Mindy episodes, amazed one could talk so fast in Good Morning Vietnam,  moved in Awakenings and Patch Adams, wildly entertained in Mrs. Doubtfire, and constantly enamored by Williams in all the other movies he played in that I saw.

You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.
-Robin Willliams

And now I want to bang my head on the desk.  Why again,why are so many artistic geniuses plagued by madness, addiction, depression?  It seems so wildly unfair that those who can evoke responses from deep within us literally chip away at themselves to do so.  I wonder, do we take these things for granted?  Do those who will judge and criticize Williams for taking his own life realize that it was those same raw emotions and the mind with such extreme qualities that gave us such amazing acting?

I think one of Williams’ movies that had the most impact on me was What Dreams May Come.  My roommate and I saw it in college and I remember us emerging from the theater in stunned silence.  In this movie, Ann commits suicide after losing her beloved children and husband.  Chris, her dead husband, travels to the lower realm to rescue Ann, from her own private hell, where she is to remain for the intended length of her life.  Through his sacrificial willingness to remain with Ann in the lower realm instead of returning to the dream-like state of Summerland, Ann awakens from the “hell” she is trapped in, an exaggerated version of what she was experiencing before her death, and is reborn into a new life.

I can imagine that Williams was going through his own unimaginable hell that reason wasn’t able to break through.  I imagine the pain he experienced felt insurmountable.  But I am grateful that he gave to us out of that pain, that despite his own hurting he sought to bring joy and laughter to others.   That, in my mind, is sacrificial living.

Seeking to fully live,



Ending The Circuitous Thoughts

Whenever I have considered killing myself, it was the result of my brain torturing me incessantly.  So many times I have desperately wanted to be free of these relentless thoughts, barraging my brain with their “God damn, you will entertain us!” pursuit of all my time, space, being.

How many times have I replayed conversations over and over in my head, unable to stop, or defenseless to halt the endless stream of questions and doubts surfing down the pipeline of my consciousness.   People tell me I think too impractically, that I am too emeshed in esoteric and metaphysical pondering….just live, they say, and I wonder to myself how that is possible.  Is it possible to clean the house without pondering at the same time where God is theistic or non-theistic?  Can I really teach my kids skills in life and not simultaneously be concerned with atonement theory, scapegoat theory, or one of the myriad other theories as to what Jesus was all about?   Can I write blog posts without wondering if I should just shut up because of how clearly I see and feel my own failures, my iinadequacies?

I have stumbled across meditation.  And I literally mean stumble, because how many times have I been warned about anything that wafted Eastern philosophy fragrances.  Yet now, after stumbling, I decided to go back and look at the big rock I tripped over and have found it to be a crucial piece in my mental health and spirituality in general.  Aromatherapy, if you will.  Those Eastern breezes are bringing the faith of my tradition to life for me.   So I have been reading and listening and learning….Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgelt, Thich Nhat Hahn, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Richard Rohr, Pema Chadron,and many others….centering prayer, mindful meditation, Tonglen meditation, contemplative prayer.

I’m just a newbie at this practice.  I can’t stop my latching on to thoughts swarming my way save a microsecond here or there.  But those microseconds seem invaluable and this is why I’m motivated to keep trying.  For those split seconds, I am just being without having thought associated.  Which proves to me that I’m not at my core only the summation of my thought life.  I can be still, and live, without having to engage everything that comes my way, I can let those stupid circuitous thoughts just swim on by in the lazy river of my mind to continue on their way.

In the past, I thought the only solution for ending this constant cranking out of obsessive thought was medication.  Medication that would “dumb me down”, making me feel like a big fuzzy cloud rather than sort of a semi-intellectual machine.  Now, for once, I have hope that there is something that can offer a solution, in a way that the traditional kinds of prayer I have been taught never helped me.  According to research studies noted in The Tao of Bipolar,  here are some important things to note which provide me with solid empirical data that my mind craves to ensure I’m not a complete nut:

1.  Our brains have neuropasticity, or the flexible ability of neurons to form new connections.  Aka, we are not resigned forever to remain stuck in our old thought patterns.  We have some capability of forming new ones.

2.  Practicing meditation elicits a calming response from the parasympathetic nervous system.  Practicing can enhance our natural ability to be calm.

3.  Meditation can bring about the dual effects of both relaxation and alertness, something my anxiety medication has never been able to duplicate.

4.  People that regular meditate over a number of years show significant anatomical difference in their prefrontal cortex and insula, which are related to attentiveness and awareness of internal body experiences, respectively.

5.  Meditation stimulates more activity in the cingulate gyrus (a part of the brain that deals with emotional regulation and moodiness), an area prone to lower activity in those with bipolar.

One writer explains the whole experience of what happens to your thought process through meditation in the following, very helpful way:

And as he recognises this, a kind of loosening occurs. Not only does he identify less with individual thoughts and feelings, but he also begins to rely less on particular ways of understanding himself. He feels less and less need to summarise his experience, to corral his raging flood of thoughts and feelings into a stable, permanent view of who he is. And as he begins to let go of his constant grasping after solidity, a fuller sense of who he is starts to emerge.

This statement, but writer and OCD sufferer Matt Bieber, speaks true to me.  I can let go of this Western, Cartesian view of life that says I am only what I think about that rides me with guilt and shame.

So, if you’ve never given meditation or the perhaps less intimidating Christian version, centering prayer, a try…may I encourage you to do so.  I’d love to hear your experiences,

Seeking to fully live,


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