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The Shame of Behavioral Health

By Jonathan L. Walton

In the fall of 2010, I moved to Cambridge to join the faculty of Harvard Divinity School.  Fall and winter of that year were horrible. The snowfall began in October and did not cease until late spring; the December dusk at 4 p.m. made me long for the southern California sun that my family had walked away from; and I was having trouble keeping up with the frenetic pace of my new job.

Sleep was an indulgence that it seemed a tenure-track professor could not afford. Either my slacks were shrinking by the day or my waistline was growing—I tried to convince myself it was the former. And rising rental costs had my family as broke as the Ten Commandments.

Yet the real problem was that I had become almost unrecognizable to my family. The hide-and-go-seek playing, flag-football-coaching, nightly-dinner-cooking father and husband had somehow become “that cranky man” who never came out of his office.

I am confident that my experience is far from foreign to students and professionals across the country. Whether one attends Harvard, Stanford, or Georgia Tech, increasing tuition costs and an anemic job market contribute to what are already hyper-competitive environments. Nor were my attempts to keep pace on the academic tenure-track very different from the efforts of investors running down the halls at Goldman Sachs or medical professionals sprinting through understaffed emergency rooms. But in the shadow of America’s Great Recession, where millions face long-term unemployment and underemployment, how dare one ever complain?

By the spring, however, life was turning around. There were two principal reasons.   For one, I was invited to become a resident scholar in Lowell House. Unlimited hot food in the dining hall coupled with warm people helped to thaw out my family’s frozen tushes. But most importantly, a dear colleague and friend referred me to Harvard University Behavioral Health Systems on the second floor of Holyoke Center.

To be sure, I was apprehensive. Where I come from, a genteel Southern community outside of Atlanta, any conversation about mental health evokes images of straightjackets and padded walls. Discussing mental illness is even more taboo than the topic of sex or drug addiction. Such conversations are not appropriate among “polite company.” Nor did my faith community afford me (or anyone else) the freedom to hurt. Admitting that one is confused, burdened, or depressed is an anathema. You might as well show up in church and tell everyone that you are demon-possessed.

Nevertheless, I sought counseling. When my first session ended, I felt normal for the first time in months. I was still stressed and fatigued, but my therapist helped me to put these feelings in context. I learned how factors such as stress, insomnia, and even lack of sunlight are all tied to serotonin production.

Yet with regular visits to the second floor of Holyoke and a treatment plan, I was soon back to my old self—maybe even a better self. Twelve months later, I was awarded tenure and then named the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister of the Memorial Church. What a difference a year makes.

I share this story not as a testimony of my accomplishments, but rather to reveal a subsequent moral lapse. I confess, I have not visited the second floor of Holyoke this fall. Why? Because shame once again got the best of me.

What would people think if they saw the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church sitting in the behavioral health waiting room in Holyoke? This is the question that I asked myself. Thus I requested that the receptionist provide me with the name of a healthcare provider “outside of Cambridge.” Yes, I had overcome the stigma of getting help. But the shame associated with public knowledge of receiving treatment remained.

Fortunately, my childhood pastor was correct when he said that preachers must avail themselves to the truths they proclaim. My sermon on Sunday, A Moral Man’s Moral Lapse, pointed to the way Jesus treated a Syrophoenician woman badly due to the stress and strain associated with his own ministerial success. I referenced Dean Evelynn Hammonds’s message to Harvard College about mental health and depression. “Don’t suffer in silence,” she told us, “we are here to support you.” And then I continued, “Seeking help to manage stress, identify resource to alleviate anxiety, and even taking the appropriate doctor prescribed medications to mollify mental illnesses are neither signs of weakness nor concessions to failure.”

Immediately, as the next line of the sermon poured from my lips, I realized the folly of my ways. If I am to have a moral voice, I cannot use it only to help others, but must also model the behaviors I encourage. Why should I care about who sees me on the second floor of Holyoke? Instead, I should be inviting and encouraging others to come along. This university has great resources to help us manage the many stressors associated with professional life. We should never be ashamed to take advantage of them!

So, I made my appointment this week. Might you consider joining me?

Jonathan L. Walton is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister of the Memorial Church.

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