Like many people, the news of actor Lee Thompson Young committing suicide stunned me. The former Disney star was only 29. I'm sad that he was in so much pain and I hope he is at peace.
Young's death triggered a recent memory surrounding Paris Jackson's suicide attempt earlier this summer. While scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a post from a webzine about her hospitalization. Most comments were compassionate, but one comment stung. A woman wrote that Jackson was suicidal because she didn't have God in her life. Unfortunately, such opinions about mental health aren't rare.
I don't know Paris Jackson personally. I imagine the death of her father, music icon Michael Jackson, along with his wrongful death trial and growing up in the public eye have been stressful. I'm not going to equate her mental health issues to having no relationship with God. The problem with the woman's comment, and similar I've heard, is that stigmatizing, misinformed beliefs about faith and mental health create shame and deter people from seeking help.
I remember growing up in the church and hearing ministers say, "Don't take your problems to a psychologist. Take them to Jesus." Or, "If you're feeling depressed you just need to pray harder." There was this notion that somehow your mental health problems were a result of you not being prayed up enough or having a weak connection to God. They also assumed depression was a choice. But I never heard preachers say to church members diagnosed with cancer, "Don't get radiation or visit your doctor. Just count on Jesus." Or, "You have lupus because you need to work on your bond with God." Whether it's mental or physical, a health problem is a health problem.
These messages confused me in my teens. I went to church, attended Catholic school from K-12th grade, was a campus minister in high school and prayed daily. God was a huge part of my youth. So why was I struggling with depression if what the ministers said was true? I was bubbly in public, but at times secretly carried sadness. Being bullied in middle school hurt my self-esteem tremendously, but the good should've outweighed the bad. I attended great schools, earned high grades and had a supportive family. I even had a telephone in my bedroom and a pager, which was a big deal for a teenager in the '90s. What was there to be sad about? So I prayed harder while feeling ashamed that I needed therapy. However, many Americans receive psychological treatment. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one in five adults live with a mental illness.
In college, I wrestled with my faith and depression. I felt God had abandoned me. Eventually I met other wonderful people on campus who lived with depression and realized my condition wasn't a result of me not being Christian enough. I released my internal shame a few years ago when I began working at PEERS, a nonprofit in Oakland that does mental health advocacy. There I host the podcast Mental Health and Wellness Radio. Every day I interact with people who are living active lives and are in recovery from bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, etc. Their mental health conditions haven't gone away, but many say their spirituality helps them maintain their wellness. I hear this from Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, etc.
According to a 2010 survey by the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative, 79 percent of people with mental health challenges and family members agreed spirituality is important to their mental health. The percentage varies in different cultures. For example 88 percent of African Americans agreed their faith is significant for their mental health.
"Faith and spirituality are very important parts of culture," said Minister Monique Tarver, a mental health and spirituality expert. "They provide hope and meaning to life, which are essential components to maintaining individual and community wellness."
One such example is Kompha Seth, co-founder of the Cambodian Association of Illinois. Seth lost his wife, child and most of his family during the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that lasted from 1975 to 1979. During an interview with him on Mental Health and Wellness Radio, he told me that practicing Buddhism helps him and others in his community handle the effects of trauma.
"Suffering is like fire," said Seth. "The fire can burn the home or cook the food. In the philosophy of Buddhism, suffering is a part of us. How to be happy is to learn how to cope with it, live with it and overcome it."
Whether you believe in a higher power or not, anyone can have a mental health problem. Life happens. So does recovery from a mental illness. For years I falsely believed a weak bond with God led to my depression. Today, I see miracles through my work. I see the power of hope from people who have overcome unimaginable trials. I see the God in them. I see the God in me.