Our guests take a compassionate and knowledgeable approach to the topic of mental illness, discussing its medical, psychological and spiritual aspects as well as the challenges it poses for families. (Part 2 of 2)
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Greg Russ: There was just an incredible amount of brokenness and pain and you know, lack of sleep, just horribly lethargic. You know, I couldn't concentrate and there I was, a 36-year-old man and I went over to my mom and dad's apartment and I laid my head in their lap and I wept for two hours.
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John: Well, a painful memory for Greg Russ, describing life with a bipolar disorder. And you'll hear more of his story coming up. Now last time on "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly, we heard about the suffering that takes place when mental illness is in an individual, in a family. And we'll be looking again at this subject and have some answers for you about this very serious issue. I'm John Fuller and Jim, there's such a broad range of mental disorders and we're not gonna be able to cover everything, but our panel of experts really touched on some important issues last time.
Jim: Well, and that's important, the panel of experts, because John, you and I, we're here to represent the questions that our listeners have. And we want to delve into the subject, because one, it's very understated in the Christian community. It's almost like we look the other way. And it's important. [At] Focus on the Family, we want your marriages to thrive; we want you to uh … have a household where your children are doing well. And by touching these topics, I hope we can give you the tools that you need to address the issues that you're encountering.
Last time we left off with the family being that safe place. But there are families that create the very depression and anxiety that we're talking about.
Jim: Describe that for us. What is happening in that family where that dysfunction is occurring?
Jared: The tragic thing in America is, that it's often our deepest hurts and our greatest sorrows that occur within the context of the family. And that's, I think, the opposite of the way God intended it, the way He designed the family to function, its structure, its purpose, its mission. And so, we see hurts of neglect and abuse that do traumatize children and adults, many times very deeply.
John: Well, that's the voice of Dr. Jared Pingleton. He's the director of Focus on the Family's counseling department. He's one of our panel of experts that we alluded to here, 36 years of clinical experience, I guess you started when you were like 10, Jared. (Laughter) And …
Jared: I was born at an early age. (Laughter)
Jim: Born at an early age.
John: Also served (Laughter) as a pastor. And then two members of our Physicians Resource Council and Jim, this is a group of professionals who help us. They celebrated 25 years now, coming alongside Focus on the Family and giving us guidance and insight when we come on the broadcast and talk about issues like this.
Dr. Ricardo Whyte is a psychiatrist and is director of chemical dependency services at Loma Linda Behavioral Medicine Center at Loma Linda University. And Dr. Don Graber is also on our PRC, as we call it and just recently retired after 35 years as a psychiatrist. And they brought great heart, energy, story and um … understanding of the Scriptures to the discussion yesterday, Jim.
Jim: They did, and we are so blessed to have all these men with us. What can families do a better job at to make sure that their relationships within the immediate family are as strong as they can be?
Jared: I think for our families to be strong and healthy, Jim, they need to be able to feel safe emotionally. When families feel safe, there's an absence of shame and fear and guilt and hostility, criticism and judgment. And so, when we're able to feel safe, we're able to naturally open our hearts to one another. So, for me, there's a basic difference between what I call healthy families and unhealthy families and it's simply this. Healthy families are able to talk out their feelings, whereas unhealthy families tend to act out their feelings. And to me, a healthy family is one like we heard at the top of the show.
Jim: Let's listen to the rest of Greg's story that we started with. This is a person who's suffering with bipolar disease. Let's listen to the rest of the story and have you comment on it.
Greg Russ: I went through a three-month period of sleep deprivation and the darkness had come in and moved in and had me in its grip. At the time, I did not believe in medicine. I did not believe in doctors. I thought it was a lack of faith on my part. And you know, the horrible condemnation and even the suicidal ideology, I just felt like that was part of my faith failing.
It took nine months to go all the way through that with no medication, no help, obviously not telling anybody what I was doin', other than they just knew that somethin' terribly was wrong. So, I guess we've all heard about functioning alcoholics. I guess I'm a functioning clinical[ly] depressed person (Chuckling) when I was in that state.
For the next nine years I would carry what Dr. Hart would call a low-grade depression. There was just an incredible amount of brokenness and pain and maybe a good word for it would be a lot of "residue." So, you know, lack of sleep, just horribly lethargic. You know, I couldn't concentrate.
I knew that for three or four months, I was gonna have this horrible suicidal ideology. I knew that I was gonna have to preach every week. And there I was a 36-year-old man and I went over to my mom and dad's apartment after I left the psychiatrist' office and I laid my head in their lap and I wept for two hours.
You know, so many people, they die on what I call "emotional battlefield." And you know, we're not gonna stop everybody from dyin' on the emotional battlefield, but I tell you what. We could prevent a lot of casualties if we'd just be more aware of it.
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Jim: Wow, I mean, here is a man who's pastoring and working and came to the end of his rope. What are your initial observations of his story?
Ricardo: I'm gripped by sadness, because that didn't have to be. I think a lot of times parishioners don't recognize that God also guides innovation. I consider Loma Linda University and I consider the role that God's hand has played in helping that university make some wonderful breakthroughs. But when you're talkin' about the condition of bipolar disorder, and particularly acute mania, where you're up and the patients describe it as almost being painfully euphoric. But the point is, he didn't have to suffer for that long and he really put his life at risk, because some manic episodes end in suicide.
Don: That's an important issue. Suicide is an awfully permanent solution to a temporary problem.
John: But there's--
Don: Well …
John: --such a stigma associated with what he was feeling that he didn't know where to turn and then …
Don: Well, he said he was afraid of medicine and doctors and that's true and patients are. I suffered from a bout of depression, I was reluctant to go get professional help and fortunately, got well in some other ways.
Jim: Why was that though? Why would you as a medical doctor, knowing the signs, why would you be afraid to seek help? That's the crux of the issue.
Don: I was concerned about my professional career. I was concerned about what my colleagues would think. I wasn't sure I could find a Christian psychiatrist that I was comfortable with andI just wasn't anxious to do that. I'm ashamed to say that, being a psychiatrist, because that's exactly what we're fighting, is that stigma.
And I knew it could be a biological thing. It could very well have been a medical condition and I might very well have needed a medication.
Jim: You know, one thing we need to talk about is the impact of mental illness on family members and in particular, we haven't touched on schizophrenia and this next person's story, I think illuminates for us the impact on family members. Amy Simpson has a painful and personal story that I think will help all of us better understand that secondary suffering that we're alluding to, that can occur when someone in the family is diagnosed with a mental disorder.
Amy Simpson: My mom, who has a serious mental illness, when I was growing up as a child, she showed some symptoms of her mental illness. She actually started showing symptoms at a very typical age for an illness like hers, which is schizophrenia.
She went through this cycle that's very typical for people with schizophrenia and has continued to go through this cycle now through my adult life of having a serious breakdown, being hospitalized, getting medicated to some degree and then eventually, over time that medication building up and working better and better, helping her to function pretty well for a time.
And then eventually, she would decline again. And often her decline was caused by her either stopping her medication or taking less of it than she needed. Her illness has at times become so severe and so consuming of her life that she's made some terrible choices and put herself and other people in danger.
She's spent time living in homeless shelters, disappeared from home, lived in various places. So, I mean, all of that has been very difficult to deal with as an adult, as well.
I've been sort of walking through a healing process, as well. It hasn't always looked like healing. You know, it hasn't always felt like healing. Sometimes it's felt like just diving deeper into pain and wondering if I was ever gonna find my way out. But I did actually find my way out.
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Jim: I mean, the heavy heartedness of hearing this woman's story. Speak to the Amy's, those children, perhaps even teenagers and young adults that are dealing with parents who have struggled with mental illness. What can they do? And how do they cope?
Ricardo: I like to encourage patients like Amy that He came to set the captives free, so that in situations where it seems hopeless, it's important to remember that we serve a God Who delivers.
Ricardo: The other issue being, He didn't come for the righteous. In a sense, He didn't come for those that are well; He came for the sick. So, as a mental health practitioner, what I want to do is, I want to partner with you through a difficult time. Amy's story highlights, this is not a walk in the park. This is not for the faint of heart. This is not for those who can only tolerate success. There will be some successes. There will be failures, but we're constantly walking through this journey together. That's what's humbling about working in mental health care.
Jared: Our heart just goes out in compassion to the brokenness of this child's experience. There are so many children who are secondarily traumatized by severe mental illness—the instability, the uncertainty, the unpredictability, the insecurity that those people grow up with is devastating. And what they need is a sense of a secure, stable, predictable, reliable environment. And that's again, why I think the church has an opportunity to be a healing corrective community, of faith, of love and support.
Jim: Let me turn quite dramatically here. In the news, we're hearing a lot about the school shootings and violence in the culture. And oftentimes now that's attached in that news report with the breakdown of mental health care delivery and what has gone wrong and the fact that people that struggle with severe mental illness aren't getting the help that they need. Is that fair? And what is happening in the culture where there seems to be so much more cruelty and victimization going on?
Jared: Well, that's a huge point. I think we need to have compassion in the church to those who are hurting. One issue that I think is an enormous feature there is, there's a lot of cost involved for appropriate healthcare. And we have a huge segment of our homeless population that cannot afford or do not have access to adequate healthcare. So, I think the financial limitations are an enormous fact in that, the whole problem--
Don: Particularly in-patient psychiatric …
Jared: --because …
Don: Nobody wants to pay for that. It's--
Jared: It's extremely expensive.
Don: --terribly costly. It's not hard to diagnose those psychiatrically ill patients who are likely to commit that kind of an atrocity, because they're very ill. They're probably not taking medication and that's--
Jared: But their care is not--
Don: --why those things happen.
Jared: --prioritized. "
Ricardo: We have marginalized mental health. We have said it's a luxury to actually address it. And what we're seeing is the fallout from that, in that it's something that could be addressed very easily, but it's gotta be prioritized.
Jim: So, in your professional opinion, I want to make sure I'm understanding you, if we were more aggressive as a culture addressing mental illness and more willing to pay for that in some way, either through insurance companies or healthcare, whatever it might be, you feel that there would be a um … measurable decrease in the violence that we're seeing.
Don: Yes, there aren't very many schizophrenic patients that are violent. It's the small minority. Most schizophrenic patients and most psychiatrically ill patients are not--
Jim: Give me a--
Don: --to other people Maybe five percent schizophrenic patients are dangerous.
Don: And it's a real dilemma. It's harder now, I think, to get these patients into a hospital. For one thing there's about a tenth of the number of state psychiatric hospital beds as there were at their peak many years ago.
Don: We just don't have the psychiatric beds to take care of these people.
Jim: So, again, as professionals, you would say you feel … and I'll use the metaphor of a mechanic, you feel like you have fewer tools in your hands to actually treat the problem.
Ricardo: As a community, we have to prioritize mental healthcare. We have to take this message to our governmental representatives and we have to stop seeing it as a luxury item and actually treat it like the priority that it is. Because even though that percentage of violence is small, the impact is potent.
John: Well, we're hearing so many different good insights and perspectives on a very difficult subject, much bigger than we could possibly cover in –depth here on this "Focus on the Family" broadcast. Let me just suggest you stop by our website for some details, some follow-up materials, some things that might help you better understand a little bit of what we're talking about here today.
Dr. Graber, there is a fear I think that some have that you're just gonna prescribe a pill and I'm gonna have to spend the rest of my life medicated. And I don't want to do that. So, would one of you just address that one head on, because that's a pretty common stumbling block for someone to seek out appropriate help.
Jim: Well, and there's two ends of that. One, should I take a pill as a Christian?
Jim: And then on the other end, should I stop taking the pill?
Don: Well, and the answer to that, would you take insulin for diabetes? Would you take a heart medication if you had a heart condition? We're talking about a condition, either a disease or a dysfunction of the brain. In some ways, it's an artificial distinction to call the medical versus mental.
Jim: But that …
Don: Mental just means it's the brain. That's an organ in the body.
Ricardo: The bottom is, you don't want to take a pill. And there are people who, even for their diabetes, they don't want to take their pill. And so, the problem unfortunately is, is not only do they not want to take the pill; they don't want to do the behavioral interventions that at times, they would experience a lot of gains. So, the pill …
Jim: It's easier.
Ricardo: So, I'm like, look; if you want to do the behavioral interventions, 'cause I have some that'll be helpful and do you want to respond, then so be it. But what you find is, a lot of times, what we can do is, we can use the medications to move you along to the point where you can now learn some of the behavioral interventions that may reduce the reliance on the medications.
Don: And …
Ricardo: But a lot of times people don't tend to display the kind of discipline required for them to just rely on the behavioral intervention in order to cope with the psychiatric disorders.
Don: And the answer to are they going to be on medication the rest of their lives is something like this. If you have a first bout of depression and you respond to an antidepressant, you should probably get off of it in six months or so. I make a trial. You actually discontinue the medication and see if you're okay off of it. You might do fine.
There's about a 50 percent chance though that you'll have another bout of depression. And you may have to go back on medication, and if you respond again to medication, now four to six months you have another decision to make. Am I gonna stay on it? Because it's much less likely to occur on medication than off. Or are you again gonna go off medication?
And if you have a third bout of depression, the statistics get something like 80 percent or more that you're gonna have another bout of depression. So, medicine and psychiatry, there's a lot of trial and error, but you pay close attention to your patients. You try to understand what their wishes are and what their hopes and fears are and you work together collaboratively to try to work it out and do what you have to do to keep them feeling good and functioning.
Ricardo: Just to dovetail off of that, I'll get patients who come in and they say, "Hey, I want to get off all my meds." And what I'll say is, "Hey, how about we establish some goals, okay? And let's remove the medications that are incongruent with those goals and let's keep the medications that are helping you with that goal. And let's be goal-oriented in our decisions with regard to what medications we keep and not keep.
Jared: Medication is very important, but another piece we're not addressing well today is, the research shows that equally effective in treating major mental illness is psychotherapy. And that's where--
Jim: And a lot of people--
Jared: --counseling …
Jim: What does that mean?
Jim: 'Cause there's a variety.
Jared: There is and you know, the things that to me is important and very comforting is, that all truth is God's truth. We don't need to fear science, because--
Ricardo: All science--
Ricardo: --is God's science.
Jared: --is. The truth of God is made clear in what He has created--
Don: All goodness …
Jared: --including our understanding of scientific truth, including the reality of biblically based counseling. We know that those principles work and what the research shows is most effective is a combination of proper medical care and psychotropic medication when necessary and good Christian counseling.
Jim: So, there's medical help. There's psychological help and of course, Christian counseling can be very important for mental stability, emotional stability. But there's a question I want to ask and that is, what is the church's role in all of this suffering? How do we help our fellow brothers and sisters through those difficulties, so that they can get through them? What's happening in that area?
Jared: I think the problem there is the church is simply not doing its job, Jim.
Jim: How would it do--
Jared: It's to be a community.
Jim: --it better?
Jared: Well, we're to reach out to the broken hearted. We're to alleviate the suffering. We are to support the wounded. We're to--
Don: Have programs in the church for--
Don: --those that have mental illness in their families, just like you would those that might have cancer in their family.
Jared: I'd love to hear sermons that bash the shame and stigma of mental illness.
Don: And to become more transparent about its presence--
Don: -- in our families and in our lives. Why do we cover it up?
Ricardo: One of the most helpful things about the recovery, the addiction recovery community is, one of the critical things we see necessary is being transparency [sic].
Ricardo: Of course, you have to careful and you have to be in a safe context, but transparency is so critical and us dropping the façade. I think it was so courageous what you did, Dr. Graber in acknowledging, hey these-
Ricardo: --this was how I went through this. But too often we're not seeing that kind of transparency.
Ricardo: And so, we all maintain the façade, like everything is okay with me. Everything's not okay--
Jim: Well, that's true.
Ricardo: -- all the time.
Jim: And it's one of the greatest weakness, because I think people that are wounded and hurting have a hard time attaching to something they see as perfect. And as we as Christians, try to project that everything's perfect, our families are doing great--
Don: It would be so much healthier if we could share our brokenness.
Jim: --people would attach to it far better.
Don: They do.
Jim: I …
Jared: Because the church is not supposed to be a museum for saints. It's supposed to be a hospital for sinners, but we need to make it safe.
Jim: Let's end with hope. I think that's a good place to go. We have a montage of expression of hope from people that have suffered from mental illness. Let's take a listen to that.
Amy Simpson: I'm not qualified to perform heart surgery or cure diabetes or give someone medical advice in a situation where they're facing an illness, but that doesn't stop me from offering them my friendship and care. Same thing is true with psychiatric disorders, with mental illness. Just because we're not qualified to help treat that person, just because we don't know exactly what they need, doesn't mean that we can't help
We certainly can help by extending friendship, by being present, by refusing to alienate people just because suddenly they … they show symptoms of a mental illness or they've been diagnosed with something. And when we do that, when we decide that we're still going to be friends with someone, we send the message that maybe God hasn't walked away from that person either, that there's hope.
So, the good news about the current state of the church's response to mental illness, every little thing we do can make a big difference and can actually save somebody's life, can actually keep somebody in the church, can actually offer a hope in our ultimate redemption in Christ that keeps somebody hanging on when they otherwise might let go.
Brad: My experience is this; my life's never been better, and I think there's people that would be surprised that I say that. Even when I looked so good and so successful by outward appearance, it can't touch how happy I am today. It absolutely … I am so glad what happened, happened. As much as I hate it, and I don't like my story, I don't like telling it, God intervened and He saved my life.
Now He didn't make happen what happened. He allowed it. Here's the thing that I really believe, is that the church of all places has the real answer for people with mental health problems. The first thing you lose is your confidence. The second thing you lose is your hope. But if, in spite of how you feel and how depressed you might be, the only thing that I could hang onto at that point was, that I knew not with my mind, but with my faith, that God was still God. And I just had to override a lot of the pain sometimes and just keep going in spite of the fact that I wanted to hang it up. And I'm exhilarated when I can say it to them, that this is the sickest you have to be today, ever. From here, there's hope.
LaDonna Gatlin: The one thing that I can say unequivocally is, there is hope; there is help; there is healing after depression, even suicide attempt, because I am living proof of that. And here's the one thing that I would say to anyone who is dealing with depression, and I would look them in the eye and say, you are not always going to feel this way. You think you are, but you are not. I guarantee you that. There's a way out of this. There's medication. There's therapy. There are things in place that can help you get through this. I'm living proof of it.
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Jim: Now those were both the patients and family members who are giving us hope to lift those that are in a bad spot, to get them to a better place. Let me ask you doctors, what would you add to that?
Jared: The Apostle John gives us incredible hope when he reminds us of the reality of living. We're not promised a comfortable problem-free life. He says, rather, in this life you will have many troubles, but be encouraged, Jesus says. I have overcome the world. And to me, that's the ultimate message of hope. We have a Redeemer Who delights in transforming blessing out of our brokenness.
Jim: And quite frankly, that's why I can walk around every day with a smile on my face. Dr. Don Graber, Dr. Whyte, Dr. Pingleton, thank you so much for being with us these last couple of days and expressing the thoughts that you've had on mental illness. Thank you.
Panel: Thank you for having us. Thank you.
Jim: And John, the hope we have to offer is Jesus and as we've heard today, Focus on the Family's built on that foundation of sharing Christ. One of the ways we get to do that is through our counseling team, which is um ... speaking and praying with literally tens of thousands each year who are in a time of crisis, including those suffering with the mood and psychological difficulties that we've talked about these last couple of days. I would invite you to reach out to these families in need and give them a helping hand, by donating to Focus on the Family. There is no gift that's too small, 20 or $30, $50 a month can do so much to assist us in helping them. And I hope you will do that today.
John: Well, so many are touched through this ministry, through the radio and all the different efforts that are going on here. Our counseling team and I'll join in, in inviting you to participate in that way. Well, the subject of mental illness is so immense and so complex and nuances, we couldn't possibly say everything that needs to be said in just two days of programs. But we've tried to give you a better understanding of the many challenges associated with mood and anxiety disorders that trouble so many families. And we want to offer hope to you and really the call on the church to have compassion for those who are suffering.
I certainly will say that the help we offer through our counseling staff is just tremendously beneficial to so many. And we have links for you to find out more about counselors in your area. We have articles and resources there. In fact, each of the personal stories we heard from LaDonna Gatlin, Greg Russ, Amy Simpson and Brad Hoefs, has a book associated with it and our thanks, of course, to each of them for their help with this broadcast.
You'll find all of that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call us and we can tell you more. Our number, 800-A-FAMILY; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and made possible by generous listeners like you. On behalf of Jim Daly, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back on Monday. We'll hear about charting a new course for your marriage and family, as we once again, offer trusted advice to help you and your family thrive.
Jared PingletonView Bio
Don GraberView Bio
Dr. Don Graber retired in 2013 following a professional career that spanned more than 35 years. He worked as a psychiatrist in private practice, as a staff psychiatrist and as the medical director of a psychiatric hospital. Dr. Graber continues to serve in his field as a member of Focus on the Family's Physicians Resource Council.
Ricardo WhyteView Bio
Dr. Ricardo Whyte is the Director of Chemical Dependency Services at Loma Linda Behavioral Medicine Center of Loma Linda University. He also serves as the Medical Director of the Outpatient Psychiatry Service of the Loma Linda University Psychiatry Department at the Behavioral Health Institute, and on Focus on the Family's Physicians Resource Council. Dr. Whyte and his wife, Florence, have one child, a daughter named Alexi.