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“Mental health is health. It is all a gift from God,” said Clifton Saper PhD, lead psychologist for AMITA Health and director of clinical services for its Behavioral Medicine service line. “We are really talking about whole-care. We are not caring for the whole patient if we are not taking care of mental health.”

June 8, 2021

Faith and Medical Care

An Integrated Response to the Mental Health Crisis

CREATION Life, based on the foundation of Seventh-day Adventist belief, promotes a whole-person approach to health care, focused on meeting the needs of the body, mind and spirit. That belief inspired the Adventist hospital presence that is now part of AMITA Health.

Drs. David and Mary Paulson, Seventh-day Adventists, were ministering to the disabled, impoverished and criminal in Chicago. Then, believing that “patients should have fresh air, sunshine, suitable exercise, pure water, rest, a wholesome diet, a beautiful outlook and a mind at peace with God and man,” they opened a sanitarium in Hinsdale, Illinois, in 1905 that evolved into what is now AMITA Health Adventist Medical Center Hinsdale. This integration of the gospel and health care is central to AMITA Health’s belief that the mind is as much in need of care as the body.

“Mental health is health. It is all a gift from God,” said Clifton Saper PhD, lead psychologist for AMITA Health and director of clinical services for its Behavioral Medicine service line. “We are really talking about whole-care. We are not caring for the whole patient if we are not taking care of mental health.”

Saper said that some people see mental health problems as signs of a weakness of faith or self-discipline and believe that if people just prayed harder or tried harder, they could overcome those problems. But that is not the case, he said. Mental health issues are not signs of some kind of failure. Instead, they are part of what binds people together as human beings, and people should recognize that in themselves and in others.

“God wants us to support each other, to reach out to help each other and to reach out when we need support. There should be no stigma or shame,” Saper said. “We need each other, and by listening to and supporting each other, we can realize a better quality of life.”

As people begin to seek help for behavioral health issues, they find that they are not alone, that many people are experiencing the same things. “We are all in very similar boats,” Saper said. “That’s important for all of us to know. And unless you share and are willing to open yourself up for people to show caring and love and support, you are never going to know that.”

Treatment for behavioral health issues is as much a gift from God as is treatment for physical ills. Saper said. “God has given us tools as human beings, and you should be using those tools,” he said. “He didn’t create you to stick your head in the sand.”

 

When to Seek Help

People experiencing behavioral health issues should seek help in the same way that people with physical ills do. But when the body is sick, the signs are often obvious. The signs of mental illness can be more subtle and easier to ignore or mask. So when is it time to seek help?

“If you feel like what you are experiencing is interfering with your life, if you notice you’re not as productive as you want to be, if you’re isolating yourself or you can’t be empathic or caring with your family, if you’re not functioning the way you would like to function, that’s when you need to look for help,” Saper said.

The pandemic has worsened mental health issues for many people, Saper said. As much as three-quarters of the U.S. population has shown increased anxiety and/or depression, and there has been an increase in suicidal ideation, addictions, sleep disorders and overdoses.

“Especially during this time of pandemic, it’s important for folks to realize that it’s okay to be not okay,” Saper said. “It’s appropriate and, in fact, desirable to allow yourself to have the feelings of anxiety, sadness, grief that all of us have. Unless you allow yourself to be aware of these feelings, you are going to end up ignoring them and then suffer later with behavioral issues, addiction and other problems.”

As the pandemic shows signs of easing, especially with more people getting vaccinated, some people are uncomfortable with the idea of returning to work or going into places where there are more people. They have spent more than a year trying to feel safe in their homes, and they have a lot of anxiety about re-entering society.

“It’s important to first realize that that anxiety is normal,” Saper said. “We have developed new routines, and changing those routines will be stressful. People who continue to avoid re-entry always will be anxious. We start with baby steps. We suggest that people have limited exposure at first, so they can see that they will be safe.” He added that this is an approach for people who suffer from anxiety or other disorders even in non-pandemic times.

Finally, Saper urged people to understand that behavioral health issues are much more common than they might think. He said that most people, at some point in their life, will reach out to a professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five American adults experiences some kind of mental illness.

Christina Lobraco
Christina Lobraco

A Personal Story

One of those people was Christina Lobraco, a Clinical Mission Integration program manager for AMITA Health based at AMITA Health Adventist Medical Center Hinsdale. More than 15 years ago, after struggling with various issues and having a major surgery, Lobraco became depressed. As part of her depression, she found herself getting irrationally angry and upset at times. That was unusual for her, and she did not like it. At a regular visit with her doctor, she discussed how she was feeling. He prescribed medication.

She was surprised when she read the material with the prescription and discovered she was taking antidepressants; she had described her symptoms as anger rather than depression. But her doctor suggested she just take the medication for a while and see if it made a difference.

It did help her feel less angry. But it also made her feel less like herself, and she did not want to feel that way. So she began to explore other ways to deal with her anger and sadness, including seeing an herbalist and a homeopathic doctor.

“At about the same time, I was getting more curious about God and my relationship with Him,” Lobraco said. She continued to explore and expand her relationship with God, and she also became interested in pursuing a career in behavioral health. Eventually, through a combination of her growing spirituality and various therapies, she was able to move to a place of greater behavioral wellness. She began to work at connecting other people to the kind of resources that had helped her.

One of the main parts of her role at AMITA Health is to help employees identify and reach out to the resources they need, especially for their spiritual or mental health growth. She directs people to the employee assistance plan or other options based on their needs. And she often starts by telling them about her own experience.

“When people come to me, if I get the sense it will make them feel better or feel less isolated and alone, I ask if I can share my story,” she said. “Sometimes people think they are the only people going through a behavioral health crisis. The first things that makes some people open their eyes and their mind and their heart to a different idea is when somebody else says, ‘Me, too. That has happened to me, too.’”

Lobraco said her interest in and passion about behavioral health are outgrowths of her own experience, especially her journey toward a stronger relationship with God. She believes faith is not an impediment to mental health care but is, instead, a critical part of being well mentally and physically.

“God says we are beautifully and wonderfully made, and He certainly is not going to turn His back on you if you seek out counseling or other help,” she said. “That’s not the kind of God we report to.”

 

Self-Care for Mental Health

The first step in behavioral health self-care is for people to become more aware of how they are feeling and take steps to feel their best. Saper suggests that everyone should:

  • Be grateful for the things they have rather than focusing on the challenges and worries of life. “Be able every morning when you wake up to think about things for which you’re grateful,” he said. “That’s a good way to start the day.”
  • Practice mindfulness. “Whether you pray or whether you meditate, that breathing and being mindful of remaining in the present is another way to take care of yourself,” he said. “Doing it every day is important, so we stay in the present and don’t get hung up on worrying about the past or about what might happen to us in the future. Instead, think about what we need to do in terms of our thinking, our physical health and our behavior in the present.”
  • Understand what it is possible to change and what cannot be changed. “It’s important to change the things we can change, but when things are out of our control, we need to let them go,” Saper said.
  • Take care of their physical body. Get enough sleep, exercise and healthy food. See the doctor regularly, and do what he or she recommends. In these times, it is particularly important to get vaccinated, wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands.
  • Be part of a community. “It is important that we not feel isolated,” Saper said. “Humans are meant to be in a community, and being involved with others keeps us from getting caught up in our own problems.”
  • Be of service. “Volunteering or helping others is a good way to be part of a community,” Saper said.
  • Finally, people who feel they need help should ask for it. They can reach out to their doctor, their pastor or a trusted friend. If their company has an employee assistance plan, that can be a good place to start. There also are local, county, state and national organizations that offer various kinds of help, much of it free.

Saper and Lobraco stress that God has made these resources available, and it is up to individuals to reach out and take advantage of them.

“I have always had my relationship with God and never felt that I was ‘less than’ because of any struggles I was experiencing,” Lobraco said. “I always held fast to the idea that my God loves me no matter what, and He also gives me the tools and guides my steps to do whatever I need to do. There is no shame in that.”

 

Resources

National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness so all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives (www.nami.org).

Hotlines

Many organizations run hotlines and online services to provide mental health support. These are just a few of the available services:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline (www.thehotline.org) offers phone support to people experiencing domestic violence.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org) offers phone support to people in emotional distress.
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline (www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline) provides treatment referrals and informational support to people coping with substance abuse or other mental health conditions.
  • Veterans Crisis Line (www.veteranscrisisline.net) provides support to veterans and their loved ones.
  • Mental Health America (https://screening.mhanational.org/content/need-talk-someone-warmlines) operates “warmlines” across the country, where callers can receive support when they just need to talk to someone, usually a person who understands what it’s like to struggle with mental health problems.

 

 

Julie Busch is an associate vice president for AMITA Health.