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Mar6FriLiving with an acquired brain injury can significantly affect mental health. March 6, 2020 by Lieutenant Rick Apperson
Shortly before Christmas, I was waiting at a pub to pick up toys from a recent motorcycle toy drive. What was supposed to be a five-minute job took more than two hours, and I had to wait in an extremely noisy environment, with thumping music, loud voices and an auctioneer who had the mic cranked up high so that people at the back of the pub could hear him. When I was finally able to leave, I spent the next couple of hours crying, lying in bed, unable to do much of anything. It took me a few days to find my balance again. My brain felt like it was stuck in molasses.
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I am a Salvation Army officer and I live with an acquired brain injury. Some days—like that day at the pub—it can significantly affect my mental health.
As I started to write this article, I sat in my office with tears streaming down my face. It had not been the best day. Nothing major had happened—nothing that would qualify as a “reason” for the tears running down my cheeks. But when you experience mental illness, any day can be a struggle. At times, it feels like you are on the verge of going over the edge of a cliff and clawing to stay on top.
I have had nine concussions, with my most significant ones occurring in 2013 and 2014, and my last one in 2017. Most of these head traumas were the result of playing sports and games, as well as accidents. One was a work-related accident from a prior job.
The recovery process has been long and hard and will never truly end, barring a miracle from the Lord. At my worst, I did not recognize letters. Reading, watching TV—any activity—fatigued me and I would nap for hours. My emotions have gone up and down—I’ve experienced a lot of anger and shed many tears. I’ve lived with a humming sound in my head for more than a year. I still cannot process background noise, fatigue more easily and struggle with words when I am tired or stressed. My short-term memory is horrible. If something is not written down, it is gone.
Yet I have recovered to the point where I can work full time, and write and deliver a sermon. This year, I was able to preach without notes for the first time in years. Yet I still struggle with my emotions and can fixate on the most minor of things (a real struggle for those with brain injury). My healing journey has involved lots of prayer, talk therapy with my counsellor, brain activity games and learning new coping skills so that I can manage my symptoms.
By some estimates, more than 400 million people around the word struggle with a mental health issue, and one in three Canadians will struggle with or be impacted by a mental health issue in their lifetime. It could be anything from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It could be caused by trauma, abuse, environmental issues or genetics. Mental health issues cut across all ages, cultures, educational backgrounds and income levels. They can impact our emotions and our physical health.
It is hard to explain mental health issues to those who have not experienced them. As I shared in a group therapy session recently, when someone has a visible disability, others understand if there are limitations. If someone has a health issue and it is public knowledge, people will also understand that there will be good and bad days. It is different with a mental health issue. There may be limitations or struggles, but the stigma around sharing this with others is still very real.
Among my community of brain injury survivors—some have had strokes; others, like myself, have suffered numerous concussions—the one thing everyone says is that they feel shame in talking about their brain injuries and mental health. Even though we have been told it is OK to talk about it, many people do not feel comfortable talking about their mental health with strangers, employers or even family. This is true for the person struggling, as well as those who are supporting, working or living with someone with cognitive difficulties or other mental health issues.
Hope and Dignity
If you, a family member, congregant, volunteer, staff, client or customer struggle with mental health issues or brain injuries, help and hope are available. And I believe The Salvation Army can be on the leading edge of this valuable and vital area of ministry.
While time and resources are often limited, there are little things we can do to ensure those who struggle know that they are loved by a Saviour who wrestled with anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane and shed his blood so that we can have a relationship with a Father who cares for our every need. We may not feel equipped for the task, but we need to remember that God is with us in it. As Isaiah 41:10 (NASB) says, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you. Surely I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
As The Salvation Army, we can:
- Make our corps and ministry locations safe places to talk about mental health issues. This can be as simple as hanging posters that address mental health or stickers that show this location is a safe place to talk.
- Pray for and with those who struggle with mental health issues. Remember that the struggle is real. This is not a time to “teach” ways to improve the situation, but to respond with love and compassion.
- Make space available for support groups. In Terrace, B.C., our corps is available for use by the local brain injury association, and we have brought in guest speakers to our community brunch program.
- Take available training in the area of mental health. For example, I have taken part in a 10-week Strengthening Families Workshop that talked about the basics of mental health (see strengtheningfamiliesprogram.org).
- Ensure our language is non-judgmental. The worst thing to tell someone who is suffering is to “Push through!” It is also not a time to talk about “sin” and repentance. Instead, ask what supports they need to handle the current situation. Walk with them through their journey.
- Encourage rest—physical, spiritual and emotional. Make it clear that it’s OK to have a “mental health day” or to express one’s struggles.
- Become familiar with Scripture. The Bible is filled with people who struggled with fear, doubts, anxiety, depression, anger and so on. Encourage those who are struggling that God understands. Help them to pray like the man who encountered Jesus: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
- Above all, love as Jesus loved.
The Salvation Army can be a place of rest and refreshment for those who struggle with mental health issues. It’s right in our core values—we offer hope and dignity to all.
Through our thrift stores, corps and various ministries, the Army comes into daily contact with individuals who may be among the silent majority of people suffering with a mental health issue. My prayer is that we will seize the opportunity to make safe spaces for those who struggle with their mental health, while truly being a transforming influence in the world around us.
Lieutenant Rick Apperson is the corps officer in Terrace, B.C.