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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

NWMinistryConference: If We Pause to Listen

For the past two days, I stood at a booth at the Northwest Ministry Conference for the sole purpose of talking about mental health (and illness). There is nothing in my life plan before I turned 60 that would have EVER predicted that as a possible future. NOTHING. Not that I wasn’t aware that I was hiding my own mental health issues, but to publicly stand there with a book I had published detailing my journey to wholeness was as remote a possibility as getting on my own personal rocket and traveling to Mars for an afternoon.

I kind of suspected that my time at the conference would be a bit overwhelming. After the first day, I cried—not because of my own pain, but because of the pain I saw in other—and the stories they quietly told me. I sold books, but I think the impact of my willingness to listen goes far beyond the books I sold. I felt myself breaking the stigma around talking about mental health in the church with every conversation.

People told me of friends who were struggling and of their own struggles. They bought books for themselves and for family and friends. They asked me what EMDR stood for (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and several mentioned they were in EMDR therapy. One man recovering from a horrible head-on car accident called EMDR a miracle. Many were relieved to find out that it was a legitimate, researched-based form of therapy. The fear surrounding accessing a legitimate form of healing sometimes reminds me of how suspicious many were of Jesus’ power to heal. I wonder how many missed the opportunity to heal out of fear and the influence of what was being said to them about Jesus.

My recent experience at the Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference stood in contrast to this conference. Not in a negative way necessarily—more like a view of a timeline of awareness about the effects of trauma. When I could engage in a conversation, the knowledge of how prevalent trauma is in our society was a point on which everyone agreed. The other point of agreement was the desire to help the children. What was clearly different was the depth of understanding as to the effects of trauma on a child’s brain and development—and how those effects are living out in both children and adults every single day.

I am so thankful for Kiersten Adkins and Pathways to Hope for giving me the opportunity to share the booth in order to market BRAVE. This wasn’t my first “booth sitting” experience, but it was distinctly different from all others in one way—if I could catch the eye of someone and begin a conversation, there was always pain lurking right under the surface. Maybe it was their own pain or the pain of knowing someone who was suffering. The most overwhelming pain was when they told of a family member or friend who had ended his or her life. I hope our willingness to pause and listen made a difference.

There was one very interesting reaction. If I would mention how difficult it was to talk about mental health in the church, the reaction was almost visceral. Some sighed loudly. Some seem to roll their eyes, but maybe they were simply looking toward Heaven for help. All would lean in as if to begin whispering as we continued to talk. I sensed that we were breaking the stigma with every word we shared.

I had several posts pop up as memories on Facebook this morning. For some reason, the month of March has always been a breakthrough month for me. I felt my hidden struggle in those posts and remembered the pain in which I was drowning while I dared not mention that I was in therapy. I remembered the fear I had to face when I began to talk and my words were met with silence. I am not angry about the silence anymore (well maybe a little LOL), because I know it has many sources and none of them are about me. I took an entire year to work through the silence surrounding mental health in the church before I published BRAVE. I needed to understand my purpose in talking.

There were several times that I shared the following over the past two days:

“In the midst of my painful healing process, I told God if I could ever come out on the other side of what was clearly a mental health tsunami, I would devote the remainder of my life to bringing hope for healing to others.”

This morning my legs hurt, my back hurts, and I am exhausted, but when I remember where I was one, two, three or more years ago, I know that I truly did survive that tsunami and am on my way to great adventures in stigma breaking and providing hope. I may need to rest a few days though!

Right now, I am headed to church. I am a visitor in this church where my brother-in-law is pastor. I know few people there, but I don’t need to know them to understand that if I could pause and listen for a minute, there would be stories about how mental health has affected their lives or the lives of those they love. I published BRAVE to open the door to conversations and it is working, but there is so much more to do!

We can’t fully help others without addressing the deep impact of mental health in our homes, churches, schools, and communities. Simply addressing the spiritual doesn’t address the physical and mental pain caused by trauma. Our generation has been gifted with an understanding of how the body and brain get wired by trauma—and how it can be healed and rewired. We need to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness so people can feel safe in accessing help.

What an incredible opportunity we have!

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