The Words of the Patterson Family
Megan is the Center Coordinator for the Venn Center, a private mental health center. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She lives with her husband in Fair Lawn, NJ. I am used to receiving a barrage of different reactions when I tell fellow Unificationists that I work in the mental health field. From Watch out! There's a lot of weird stuff out there! to Psychology is so selfish! But the reactions that I remember most are the hushed whispers of My mom just got out of a psychiatric hospital or My brother is dealing with depression or I am seeing a therapist, but I haven't told anyone. I have found that many people in our Unification family are struggling with issues regarding mental health.
I come to you not as an expert, but as one who has started to navigate the field of mental health. I'm a second-generation Unificationist who studied psychology as an undergraduate at the University of California Berkeley. After graduating, I worked as a mental-health worker for a psychiatric hospital in New York for a year, and I am now a coordinator for a private, mental-health practice in New Jersey. Along the way, I've made some observations that I'd like to share as a means of generating dialogue about this issue, which is affecting so many of us, yet is hardly discussed.
There are a wide range of conditions that are considered mental disorders, from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Some are directly related to situations like loosing a loved one or financial stress, and in time may pass. Others are chronic and need daily maintenance to stay regulated. Understanding the cause of these disorders is a complex task. Is it biological? Is it spiritual? I've seen many cases that support both explanations. I can't help but believe that as spiritual and physical beings, there are elements of both that contribute to the things that affect our mind, body and spirit.
One thing that has helped me in understanding people with mental illnesses is my experience with my own chronic illness, diabetes. I don't know the reason why I am a diabetic. I know that it runs in my family. I also have been told that my ancestors may have been greedy.
However, I do not focus a lot on why I am diabetic anymore. What I do know is that I have a chronic condition that can be managed. I am educated about my condition. I take medication daily. I know what my symptoms are if I am not regulated; I know that my behavior changes when my sugars are low, and my friends and family know that I may act out of character when this is the case. I can tell the cook at a local restaurant that my meal needs to be prepared a certain way, and he'll understand. I have the support of friends, family and society who are educated and aware of the needs of a diabetic.
Similar to diabetes, mental illnesses require maintenance, which sometimes includes medication, self-awareness, education and a supportive environment. One of the differences, however, is that many people are either scared of, not aware of, or shy away from the needs of those with a mental illness. There is still a lot of mystery and silence around this topic. This makes it all the more challenging for those who need to seek help.
Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects people from all backgrounds, religions, and social status. At the hospital, I took care of celebrities and homeless people, adults and children, Christians and Jews. According to a study done by researchers (Kessler et al) in 2005, about half of Americans will meet the criteria for a diagnosis of a mental disorder over the course of their lifetime. Statistically speaking then, does it not make sense that some brothers and sisters in the Unification Church community might meet the criteria as well?
Even if one does meet the criteria for a mental disorder, it is certainly not a death sentence. There are ways to manage it and lots of helpful resources. A simple way to start is what people in the field call psycho- education, or educating oneself about the illness and ways to manage stress or understand one's triggers. Education helps the condition become less mysterious and gives a better sense of control. Reading other people's experiences through blogs and biographies aids in understanding how others have found ways to help manage their condition. Another option is to seek professional help. Professionals can offer a way to connect to resources and support groups that you may not be able to find on your own.
I understand that there are many Unificationists who do not feel comfortable seeking assistance from professionals in the mental-health field and many times for good reasons. Finding a good therapist or psychiatrist is like finding a good doctor. Some doctors are fantastic, well trained and understanding. Some are not. I suggest to be upfront about your concerns and your spiritual beliefs. Modern mental health professionals are much better trained to be sensitive to a family's cultural and spiritual background. Anybody who isn't sensitive to these things is being unprofessional and you have the right to find someone else to work with.
There is one thing that I've noticed from working in this field that is undeniable. Those who are challenged with a mental illness -- but who also feel supported in their family and community -- fair better than those who feel alone and misunderstood. I hope that this article can serve as a plea for compassion and understanding for our brothers, sisters and their families who are faced with these challenges and raise awareness of an issue that doesn't get much attention.
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from The Years of Silence Have Passed; My Father's Life With Bipolar Disorder, written by the head of the psychology department at U.C. Berkeley, Dr. Stephen Hinshaw:
Persons with mental disorder are essentially and irreducibly human; their similarities with everyone else vastly outweigh their differences. Considering and embracing such fundamental humanity may well be the most important attitude for professionals and, indeed, for all of society, not only for gaining a better understanding of resilience but also for reducing the stigma that still pervades opinions toward and responses to mental disorder. Despite the very real suffering and loss induced by serious mental illness, a great many individuals so afflicted rise above their predispositions and legacies to lead productive, sensitive, and even inspiring lives. (p.192)