Front Porch Essay #9

Christianity and Mental Health: The Parish Nurses Role in Holistic Health
JoVeta Wescott, RN, MSHA

The role of the parish nurse is to offer health promotion and prevention in a holistic way (body, mind, and spirit), oftentimes helping others through the healing process. In this context this issue becomes more manageable.

Mental health can be viewed as a negative or a positive. Negatively many think of diagnosed mental illnesses (clinical depression, paranoid, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc.) In our society, including the Christian community, there continues to exist a stigma about mental illness. Can you have a mental illness if you are Christian? Do Christians get a diagnosis of cancer? Absolutely. We, as Christians, are not exempt from the disease/illness process. However, the way we handle it may, or may not, be different.

If we, as Christians, can look at the issue as one part of the healthcare picture, would our response be positive and, then, could we affect how others view mental "health?" If we truly believe that God loves us can we be the "skin on" God that makes that love become alive and real? Can we be part of the process of helping someone become "healed" --- whole-- even if the person has an illness? Parish nurses believe that physically sick, dying persons can be healed even though life on this earth will end for them. Do we need to examine our beliefs about mental health and illness to see if our beliefs reflect the light of God’s love and truly the healing (versus curing) of a person?

We view darkness as negative, light as positive. Oftentimes, mental illness is spoken of as a darkness. Christianity and light are synonymous. For many people the world is a dark and lonely place. The Christian light is one that shines from within and warms the heart and illuminates the dark recesses of the mind, body, and spirit. It is a gift we can give to others. There is a story about a young girl who purchased a Christmas decoration. It was an 18 inch plastic star that was strung with small white and gold Christmas lights. She hung it in her living room window. She noted how beautiful it was when she viewed it from the outside of her fifth story government housing project home. The light shone brightly whether anyone saw it or regardless of how cold it was. What if we could share the gift of love that God gave to us through his son Jesus so that everyone would know and believe that their light was shining and bright whether it was being admired or ignored? Isn’t it indeed the shining light itself that is important?

What if we left our lights plugged into Jesus all the time? Wouldn’t it continue to shine brightly? As humans we get so hung up on whether we "feel" something or not as the test of whether it is "real" or not.

My belief is that the shining of the light is important, whether or not I feel I am making a difference in someone else’s life. Someone may be stumbling in discouragement, sadness, or fear and in need of the light that we can give. Whatever light you offer may be a beacon Of hope and encouragement in someone's darkness. And if you feel that

your light is no more than a candle in a forest, remember this -- there isn't enough darkness in the entire world to put out the light of one small candle.

As a parish nurse the resurrection experience of death to life seems to present itself as a way of walking the path to "good" mental health. Because of the resurrection of Jesus I can offer hope to believers and non-believers. Because of the resurrection I know about sin and forgiveness. Sin cripples the Christ in me and in others. It takes away my opportunity to see Jesus in the face of my brothers and sisters.

A grateful heart is required of the Christian. Being able to forgive to the point of gratitude is not magical but it can bring healing. Forgiveness to the point of gratitude is, for the Christian, a way of allowing God to heal in the way He wants to and in His time frame. God does not promise to take away disease/illness from us but He does promise to walk with us on the journey. Forgiveness can be the tool that heals the mind and spirit, oftentimes leading to a physical healing as well.

The parish nurse role includes being a counselor, an educator, or a referral agent. In these roles, s/he may provide the listening ear and heart. She may do a depression screening and make a mental health referral or she may give an educational workshop on how to eliminate bad stress and maintain a healthy mental attitude.

As a parish nurse I must be willing to go deep inside to find the answers to life. I cannot share with you what I am afraid to tell myself. I have to surround myself with good people so I learn how to trust others and God. I have to be willing to share what is in my heart. I have to allow myself to become who I really am. When I allow myself to start this journey then I am able to reach out to others. By walking the road and meeting the wounded I then give them permission to look inside themselves and discover the real person that exists. Because we live in a relationship oriented world we need each other to be mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy. All it takes is a moment to reflect on a time in life when loneliness, depression or perhaps homesickness prevailed and the value of relationship becomes valid and important. We know in grief work that once a person reconnects with someone the work of grief becomes manageable and the light at the end of the tunnel can be seen by the naked eye. Relationships are healing as they offer what might be while fostering wellness.

To go within one has to develop a keen sense of humor. According to research, laughing may be one of the healthiest things that can be done to maintain or restore holistic health. As early as the 1970s Norman Cousins found while writing Anatomy of an Illness that ten minutes of belly laughter relieved pain for up to two hours. Laughter has the effect of sweeping out the cob webs of our mind, lightning the weight in our hearts and erasing pain in our bodies. My recent experience with an illness reinforced the importance of laughter therapy as part of the healing process. Laughter and relationships embraced my soul as I physically, mentally, and spiritually healed.

Christianity calls us to a life of acceptance – acceptance of people where they are, acceptance of who they want to become. Acceptance can be powerful, joyful and freeing, leading one to a healing experience and a truly healthy body, mind, and spirit. Jesus continually spoke about acceptance and loving one another under all conditions. He literally resurrected people from life to death. Our call is the same and our actions as Christians are the evidence of the fact that Jesus Christ does indeed still live among us. The role of the parish nurse is to respond to that call in her faith community and in her world. The call is to let the light shine -- to bring healing -- to bring the living Jesus into our world.

JoVetta Wescott, RN, MSHA
Manager, Parish Nursing Services
Via Christi Regional Medical Center
1148 S. Hillside, Suite 11
Wichita, KS  67211