On June 29, 2018, I stood in front of 30,000 young people and confessed a heavy burden: I’m a recovering self-injurer. It’s not the first time I’d spoken those words, but I never thought I’d speak them to a packed stadium.
In the weeks that followed, I received more emails, messages and phone calls than I could count, and, in these messages, two things became clear. The first is that many of our youth had already encountered deliberate self-harm (DSH) in themselves or a friend. The second is that this was the first time most of them had ever heard someone speak about it out loud.
Words have power. And the power of the words spoken in that stadium came from their being so familiar to the experience of so many who heard them. Mental health concerns are really part of all our stories, even if we grew up not acknowledging them. And so many of us have grown up not recognizing these things.
Sometimes we came up with what we thought were polite euphemisms—Cousin Jim is a bit “touched” or Grandma is just having one of her “spells.” Other times, those genuine concerns were met with harsh labels—Cousin Jim is “crazy” or Grandma is just “looking for attention.” Whether the words we’ve heard were gentle or harsh, when we aren’t talking plainly about mental health, the message is the same—mental illness is different and different is bad.
I remember the first time I saw myself in the Scriptures. Jesus encountered a man who lived among the tombs and “was always howling and bruising himself with stones.”
Words have power. And hearing our story told by a voice of authority can be the difference between hiding and healing.
I remember the first time I saw myself in the Scriptures. Jesus encountered a man who lived among the tombs and “was always howling and bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). The locals called him demoniac, and I saw in him a man struggling with DSH. But Jesus saw in this man a beloved child. He met this very different person with grace, not fear.
And when the man had been healed, Jesus gave him a command: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you” (Mark 5:19). Share your story because others need to hear it. I needed to hear it. And the story of this man’s transformation gave me hope for my recovery.
We are all recovering from something. And recovery is possible and probable when we receive the help we need. But stigma and shame prevent countless people from asking for help because they fear what others might think. We need to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health challenges, and it starts by speaking openly about them.
Our stories have the power to change lives, for good or for ill, but they can do nothing if we don’t share them. So let me go first: My name is Will, and I am a recovering self-injurer who lives with depression and anxiety. I am beloved by God. And I am not ashamed.
World Mental Health Day, Oct. 10
“The Body of Christ and Mental Illness” social message
Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor social statement
Will Starkweather’s presentation to the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering