“The work is offline.
The work is online.
The work includes presence.
The work includes absence.
The work is virtual.
The work is in the streets.
The work is in legislative halls.
The work is in art.
The work is in policies.
The work is at the polls.
The work is where we are.”
I struggle with depression and anxiety. Over the last few years, and the last couple of months in particular, I’ve really wanted to go to marches and protests, to do my part and use my voice, but because of my health issues (which also include chronic physical illness and injuries) I’ve had to admit that I mostly am not able to. It has been a difficult struggle to understand my limitations and focus on what I can do, instead of on what I can’t.
Mental and physical illness doesn’t automatically make protesting unfeasible, but for some of us it does. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t have something to contribute. Our voices and our work are important, and in fact we may be able to offer things that others can’t. Here are just four ways we need the voices of those with mental illness right now.
First, many of us with mental illness have done, and continue to do, our inner work. We have to, to survive. We’ve been to therapy. We’re working through our trauma and our unhealthy coping mechanisms. We’ve learned meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other ways to calm our fight or flight response. We’ve dug deeply into our past, mistakes we’ve made, false ideas about ourselves and the world around us. We’ve worked on understanding our own responses to stressors, as well as other’s.
In a time where defensiveness turns quickly to rage and reaction, we can show others how to sit with their emotions and learn from them. We can share what we’ve learned, and encourage others to do their inner work, too. This is particularly important for white folks, whose response to triggering situations can hurt not only ourselves, but the BIPOC people around us when we react with tears, aggression, or calling the police.
Second, those with mental illness can be prophets. Those of us with mental illness have come face to face with life’s harsh realities more than many. We have faced our own demons, and often it has made us more honest about the demons around us. Perhaps we would have preferred to have a more optimistic view of the world, to see it through rose colored glasses, but we could not. Perhaps we would have preferred to believe that the Emperor is clothed in rich and lovely garments, but we cannot. We know. And so we can speak this truth boldly to others, knowing that bold honesty and truth-telling is needed to heal ourselves, our nation, and our world.
Third, those with mental illness can be artists and poets. Because we’ve felt cut off from the rest of society, different and misunderstood, and because we’ve struggled ourselves to understand what is going on inside of us, many of us have turned to art and poetry to express ourselves. And art and poetry are needed to help us imagine a way forward. As Walter Brueggemann wrote:
“Poets have no advice to give people. They only want people to see differently, to re-vision life. They are not coercive. They only try to stimulate, hint, give nuance, not more. They cannot do more, because they are making available a world that does not yet exist beyond their imagination.”
Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros connects poetry to theology and activism in her work, too:
“Some say theopoetics is not theology. I challenge this. If creating art as an act of resistance moves us closer to a deeper understanding of God, then theopoetics is absolutely another way of conceptualizing theology. With every act of creative expression to loosen our sorrows, we elicit social movement and social change. When we create poetry, art, sustainable housing, a living wage, we are pulling light from the tension between hope and trauma.”
Lastly, those with mental illness can be advocates. As much discussion is happening on reforming and restructuring our budgets and our societies, we can communicate our needs and advocate for them. Structures need to be put into place to respond to those in mental health crises with compassion and resources, rather than arrests and incarceration – or worse. Medication and treatments need to be affordable and accessible. Those who have not experienced mental illness may have difficulty understanding our experience and our particular needs, so we need to continue to speak them.
As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, every part of the body is valuable, and has something unique to contribute. The eye needs the hand, the head needs the feet. And so we need all of us right now, including the mentally ill, to contribute to imagining and creating a better world.
I’m a writer and theologian living in Boston, Massachusetts. I write about theology, culture, social justice, and chronic illness, including my own struggles with depression and migraines. I work as a storyteller for Together Rising, and my writing has been featured in places like Sojourners, Think Christian, The Good Men Project, and Our Bible App. I earned her MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. My first book, The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You Through Depression, was published by Broadleaf Books this May, and is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, and wherever books are sold.