February 2, 2024 at 11:50 a.m.

Area pastor brings personal story to spread message there’s mental health help


By LANI FREEMAN | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment
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Zion Lutheran Church, Chisago City held its second Mental Health Wellness Day Saturday, Jan. 27. It was a simple title for what proved to be a powerful event. 

A dozen local mental health and wellness agency representatives lined Zion’s hallways inviting questions and offering community resources to those in attendance. The speaker Pastor Seth Perry’s topics for the day were billed as “Mental Health Stigma at Church” and ”Spirituality’s Role in Healing Addiction, Codependency and Mental Health.”  A Lutheran pastor, Perry is a tall man with an athletic build much like that of a hockey player from his native Canada (actually his preferred games are basketball and soccer). Dressed in casual attire, his demeanor was modest.  And then Perry began to speak; boldly, rapidly, and with the clear conviction of someone who knows what they’re talking about, not because they’ve studied it or observed it (although he has also done those things), but because he lived it. 

Pastor Perry lives each day with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder type 1. He revealed that fact to his Elim Lutheran Church congregation in Scandia as Lent began in February 2023.

Perry said he had often asked himself why had had never felt comfortable and safe before last February sharing his diagnosis with his congregation. Perry realized that if he felt uncomfortable sharing that part of himself, many others in the congregation must feel that way as well. 

And so began Perry’s online and in-person campaign to break the walls of silence and generations of social stigma that surround mental health disorders. His efforts have since extended to a personal blog, speaking engagements at neighboring churches, such as Zion and Faith Lutheran in Forest Lake, and a book of meditations that will come out soon.

In Chisago City last Saturday, Perry shared in vivid detail and with astonishing honesty how bipolar disorder type 1 has impacted his life. At age 10 he began having trouble sleeping at night and experiencing anxiety, depression and anger. A few hours with a counselor who talked mostly about sports made little impact, he says, but the institution where talks took place, did…stark and cold, the view of a mental hospital visible from his home became an ever present force in his life.

His family was very active in the Lutheran church. His parents served on church council, and he attended Sunday school and youth groups. They had good jobs and a comfortable lifestyle, but the secret stigma of mental health problems lurked in the background. An uncle who had suffered from bipolar disorder and addiction issues had died “of an accident or suicide.” Other examples of bipolar disorders existed in extended family.

When Perry was 16, his brother had a “massive manic episode” and going to therapy became a family activity, but Perry didn’t tell any of his friends. 

By age 17 he had stopped going to church, started doing drugs and wound up in the hospital with suicidal ideation. But, he got no referral, and the therapy he did receive was for his trouble sleeping. But he wasn’t honest with his therapist. “If the patient is not honest, care is not going to be effective,” he explained in his talk.

A year later, his father was driving both Perry and his brother to see a psychiatrist an hour away, twice a month. 

There Perry learned it might take years to establish a diagnosis, bipolar type 1, type 2 or schizophrenia.  

What followed, he says, were seven years of chaos—using drugs, drinking regularly, and going days on end without sleep. He attended university, but then, at age 24, friends brought him to a crisis center after he exhibited manic behavior and paranoid delusions. He spent eight weeks in his first psychiatric ward. 

As university graduation approached, he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and placed on medication. He stayed on the meds, but says he smoked marijuana the whole time. And he struggled with the stigma. 

“I had no spiritual direction. After graduation, I had lost my friends.They had moved on to do great things…that’s what I felt like. I didn’t realize other people were struggling,” he explained.

 Then he came back in touch with a psychiatrist from his childhood who since had established a program called EPI (Early Psychosis Intervention). He was seeing his psychiatrist regularly and taking part in EPI, which included supportive programs. He began living independently in Vancouver, had friends and a social life. 

Life became so good that he stopped taking his medication. The inevitable outcome was relapse, resulting in another four weeks of hospitalization. After release he would relapse again, his father and brother begging him to go with them to the emergency room, finally chasing him through the streets where he was restrained and sedated followed by four weeks in the psychiatric ward and outpatient therapy. 

By 2008 he was using $100 of cocaine a day. Suffering with paranoid delusions, he thought his father was a spy in the CIA, and was again back in the hospital. He became a “frequent flyer,” each hospitalization followed almost immediately by going off his medications. 

Perry entered terminal stage addiction in January 2009. His parents wanted to send him to a private treatment facility but he refused. 

On Feb 28, 2010, as Canada’s hockey team beat the U.S. team at the Olympics, Perry hit bottom. He was getting high every day. As tens of thousands of Canadians took to the streets in celebration, Perry remembers thinking, “When am I going to die?” 

The turning point for Perry came  April 12, 2010, when, for the first time, he checked himself into the hospital. Because he had checked in voluntarily, a referral was made to a private in-treatment care facility. He was told, “You need to do this or you will die.” This facility was very different from the institutions of his childhood and adolescence. It had a welcoming, calming atmosphere (and no locked doors).  

He was there for five months. After two months, the facility had asked him to extend his stay. “They looked at my history and said you’ve gotten the best care, had one of the best psychiatrists, and a most supportive family but still reached the point where you could die from mental health issues.” 

To prevent a relapse, his aftercare counseling continued through 2010 and 2011. He signed a contract agreeing to go to group therapy every Tuesday, and lived in a sober living house for two years. Occupants of a sober house agree that no one will use drugs or alcohol in that house.

Residents of the sober house became his support system. He was sober but struggling. His friend told him, “We’re not telling you you need to do anything. We see you struggling to live differently, and we’d like to see you live differently.”

Perry says, “He spoke with gentle conviction… and allowed me to remain silent…I knew I was surrounded by people who were going to confront me bluntly but kindly when they could see signs that I was struggling.They had struggled in a similar way, and support like this is what had been missing.” 

He started to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) at least weekly from 2010 to the present. Perry returned to church in 2011, and continued outpatient psychiatry for five years, never missing an appointment. 

 “It’s why I’m alive today,” says Perry. “This says a lot about the importance of community.” Perry’s recovery community consisted of his psychiatrist’s office, which was across the street from his church, where his AA group was also located. The pastor was a prison chaplain who said, “I understand you.”  

“That was the entry point,” says Perry, adding, “Over a slow process I realized I could help others.

    Perry went to the seminary, earned his masters in divinity and served a church in Canada before responding to a call to Elim in Scandia where he says he feels called to serve “with grace and compassion both inside and outside the walls of the church.”


What Seth Perry says about…

Staying well…faith and medication

The mood of bipolar individuals can change dramatically from very high (manic) to very low (depressed). Daily medications help keep it in check. Perry takes his medications at 9:30 every night and uses a self-devised graph to assess his mood daily. I wish it was a straight line, but it isn’t. It’s just less dramatic with medications. 

My daily faith routine allows me to stay in the moment and live with mindfulness most of the time.

Looking back on my day is how I stay healthy. Looking at an entire year or month is overwhelming. I stay in the moment. I do my daily meditations. My wife and I use a numeric scale …Are you a six or a seven today?’ she might ask.


The church and mental health

Any talk of mental health or addiction being tied to a moral failing should be actively refuted by ordained and lay leaders. Pastors and lay leaders need to endorse modern psychiatric and therapy practices.

Churches need to understand that faith-based counseling is a piece of a broader mental health solution. It can’t just be pastoral care and counseling. Bipartisan advocacy for access to mental health treatment should be entertained by faith communities.

Churches need to evaluate their use of space in the current programming in order to provide bonafide mental health services to fill in current gaps in our community. Are there organizations that could be coming into your space? Faith communities should use their charitable status to aggressively seek grant money for public mental health initiatives


On discussion of mental health and emotions in church

What Bible are you reading where emotions are not at the core of scripture and gospel? Scripture is alive with people struggling with mental health conditions.


Learning to talk about mental health

Learning to talk about mental health is a big challenge. We are undoing years and years of institutional habits.  

Avoid ‘drive-by’ gossip and feedback. Lead with objective experiences. Take time for observation. Communicate what you see and feel. 

Be direct. Normalize reaching out on a one-on-one basis. 

If you are going to say something about someone’s mental health, back it up with action. Sometimes action is as simple as a cup of coffee.

Check your motives. Are you commenting on someone’s mental health because you feel uncomfortable? 

It’s OK to take some time and think about what to say and to get help with communicating your concern if you need it. It’s not gossip if you are genuinely concerned about someone else


Codependency

Codependency exists in generational systems—family and church. 

It’s an insidious force and will suck you in. The risk and gravity of codependency will consume your life. Examples: Playing the martyr, saying ‘It’s my fault.” Or, engaging in dangerous activity on behalf of the dependent (such as driving to a bad neighborhood to give them $100 to purchase drugs.)

Sometimes helping an individual is actually hurting them.

Codependents will often refuse help, much like an addict. Codependency breeds denial and self reliance. 

Take care of yourself. Everyone needs to pursue their own recovery. It’s okay to set boundaries.


Setting boundaries

If you’ve tried to help numerous times it’s ok to step away. Example: “I will no longer offer you help due to your behavior.”

Boundaries are a skill and need to be communicated clearly: ‘This is where I end, and this is where you end.’ 

If someone is abusive, they’re abusive. We shouldn’t have contact with them.

We can still have grace and forgiveness but work to have firm boundaries where we don’t allow ourselves to be abused.


Caregiving versus caretaking

Caregiving means caring for an individual who is in need of palliative care, (meeting their physical needs) and making sure their medications are taken on time.    

Caretaking is my mom going to the impound lot and paying $900 to get my car out, telling me to take it home and park it because it’s not insured, and me peeling out of the parking lot with the car and not speaking to her for three months.

Sometimes the best way to help someone is to let go with forgiveness.


Addressing the mental health crisis

The number one thing people can do to reduce the stigma is to talk about mental health conditions.This can be done through education. It would be really beneficial if people understood more about how people are treated medically and the history of mental health treatment in North America. In our lifetime there’s been a major shift. 

We are in a major mental health crisis. One of the epicenters of the mental health crisis is with our youth. We need to train more professionals. We need to provide counseling for youth. We need to find accessible treatment for families. Local agencies are often at capacity. In an affluent community that’s a sign something is broken. In a climate where we are often divided this should be a unifying issue.


For more about Pastor Seth Perry and Give Up the Stigma, see his website and find his blog at www.giveupthestigma.com.  

On Feb. 21, Rev. Perry will release a devotional of scriptural text related to being born, diagnosed with and recovering from mental illness. Inquire with Elim Lutheran Church.

On the afternoon of Feb 24 he will speak as part of “Tool Kit for Congregational Leaders” at Faith Lutheran Church, Forest Lake. The event is geared toward church staff, council and committee members and lay leaders. $20 registration fee required.

In a mental health emergency, call:

Chisago County Crisis Line 1-800-523-3333

Washington County Crisis Line 651-275-7400


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