Mental illness is something we don’t like to talk about. Such conversations make us uncomfortable, make us uneasy.
Because we do not openly and honestly talk about depression and anxiety or other mental health issues, many of our family members and friends are suffering in isolation. Isolation that is no different than the isolation experienced by the leper in today’s Gospel.
Jesus saw through this isolation, was moved with pity, and put his compassion into action to ease suffering. We are called as his disciples to do the same.
I heard a story this week about a fellow Coug alum, former Seattle Supersonic great, and now advocate for those experiencing depression and anxiety.
James Donaldson’s story is heart-wrenching to hear.
He had it all: a 14-year successful NBA Career, an NBA All Star once, and in later years a successful physical therapy business.
That was until he had open heart surgery in 2015, was in a coma for two weeks, and flat on his back for a year. After this life changing event, he lost his mother, he lost his marriage, and eventually, he lost his business. But not before pouring in his life savings trying to save the jobs of his 29 employees.
In the end, he lost everything, and slipped into a deep depression.
The 7'2" former NBA star considered suicide. He first thought about hanging himself. Then he thought about attacking a police officer in hopes of dying by cop.
He told his therapist, nobody cared about him. Nobody cares if he lives or dies. He felt all alone and had lost all hope.
James Donaldson had an epiphany in 2019 following the death of WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski. He needed to share his pain with someone, something Hilinski never felt comfortable doing.
That is when he reached out to close friends and asked if he could call them if he needed to talk about his mental health challenges. They told him he could call at any time. “Any time?, he asked, “Even at 2 in the morning?” His friends said, yes, even at 2 in the morning.
James Donaldson eventually was treated by a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with acute depression and anxiety, and put him on right anti-depressant. Now Donaldson advocates for his community.
James was suffering severe isolation. An isolation identical to the leper encountering Jesus today.
This is the plight of many struggling with depression and severe anxiety.
I have received his permission to share this news with you in hopes your eyes might be opened.
Even Father Bryan has struggled with anxiety and depression over the years. Many of our priests do and have.
And I am so blessed to be one of his close friends who he can call upon any time (yes, even at 2 in the morning) when he needs to talk.
My sisters and brothers, people struggling with mental health issues are in isolation all around us. These friends may not carry the marks of leprosy, their wounds are less noticeable. But their isolation is no less challenging. And Jesus calls us to action.
We can be just like Jesus. We can open our eyes and our hearts. We can ask questions of our friends and family members to see how they are truly doing. We can provide the ministry of presence in their times of need.
People experiencing depression and anxiety carry much shame. We can smash through that shame with these simple acts:
1. Learn about what your friend is going through
First, consider taking a Mental Health First Aid class or just learn more about depression and anxiety. This will help to better understand what is happening and how they feel.
Sometimes it is hard to know the difference between the regular ups and downs of life, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Some may worry about how their friends might react if they talk about it. Give them the space to talk about their feelings.
2. Be open and welcoming, and listen
It can be hard to know what to say to a depressed or anxious friend. If your friend feels like talking, ask them how they are doing.
Here’s WHAT TO SAY when someone is depressed or anxious:
Start the conversation by asking questions such as: ‘It seems like things have been hard for you lately. What’s on your mind?’ and: ‘What can I do to help?’
It might be difficult for your friend to accept your help – continue to check in with them and let them know that you care about them, and that you’re there for them if they need you.
3. Take their feelings seriously
Here’s WHAT NOT TO SAY:
If someone is experiencing depression or anxiety, it is not possible for them just to ‘snap out of it’, ‘cheer up’ or ‘forget about it’. These words ever help.
Acknowledge that what is happening must be difficult to handle; do not tell them that their feelings are weird or unfounded.
Try to be caring, compassionate and curious, and let them know that they matter to you and you are taking them seriously.
4. Help them to find support
Your friend might not be aware of what professional support is available, or they may be unsure of how to get the support they need. Even if they know about support options, it can be daunting to see a mental health professional.
You can offer support by encouraging your friend to speak to a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
5. Continue supporting them and respond to emergencies
Whether or not your friend has decided to get professional help, it is important that they know they can get support from you, or other friends and family. Be there for them.
6. Celebrate their successes
When you are going through a tough time, it can be hard to recognize and acknowledge your own achievements. It is also hard to see your own progress and improvement.
When your friend takes a step towards confronting their fears or improving their mental wellbeing, congratulate them and do something fun together. Help them feel proud of themselves.
Jesus heals by his words and actions. You can too if you follow these simple steps. This is how we can put our compassion into action in the name of Jesus.