Myth busting clergy mental health

Reflections

“It is my practice now to see a psychologist six times each year, in between visits to my Spiritual Director. I also look out for the signs that I’m not coping – withdrawing or striving to be creative out of an empty bucket – and attend to them before they become a problem,” says The Rev’d Canon Sarah Plowman

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Clergy mental health

Being a clergy person often puts you in the ‘public eye’ – or at least living much of your life in the midst and in front of your congregation and faith community. This can add additional stress to what is already an intense ministry life. The desire to appear to be ‘doing well’ or being seen to be managing the demands of parish life are common among clergy. They are the people who support others, so to be seen to need support themselves is often seen as failure or a sign of underperformance.

That myth needs to be busted right now.

My own experience has taught me to proactively reach out for assistance before I think I need it and before the situation snowballs. This was a hard lesson, and one I wished I had learned earlier. There are two self-care strategies that I have gained over the years which I hope will help others, since every single person will need assistance at some point. The challenge for us is to recognise when and how that support can be obtained. My own experience has taught me much about that.

My first learning was to recognise my own reaction to stress. When I was in my mid-20s, I lived alone while working as a school teacher in Caboolture. I was a beginning teacher, active in my own church, as well as organising and leading multiple youth camps in our Diocese. It was a big workload, and more than I could handle – but because I had always managed a big workload in the past, I mistakenly thought that I should be able to handle it and that people expected me to. So not coping was a failure in my eyes. My response was to retreat, break contact with people, decline meetings, make excuses, ignore phone calls and generally be unreachable.

Thankfully, wiser heads than mine prevailed. A discerning priest, The Rev’d Jennifer Colbrahams, made the effort to drive to my home in Caboolture and visit me. I dreaded the conversation, which I was sure would be along the lines of, “Why haven’t you done what you were supposed to do?!” But, as you can imagine, it didn’t go like that. Jen asked “Are you ok?” and “What help can we give to you?” Following this conversation and with Jen’s support, I was then able to both restore relationships and get the job done – with considerable practical and emotional assistance.

The big lesson from that situation was about knowing my own response to stress and feeling overloaded. You may respond differently, but I know for myself that when I withdraw from people because a task seems too hard, I need to proactively reach out to them and tell them what my difficulty is.

The second learning was to set my expectations realistically. Early in my career, I undertook a dual role as a school chaplain and science teacher. As a school chaplain coordinating three Middle School chapels each week, I thought that every service had to be better than the last – more engaging, more uplifting, more memorable, more inspirational – and unsurprisingly, there was a limit to how amazing I could make them and I simply stopped. I came to the end of my bucket of tricks and did not know what to do. I then visited the school psychologist, a gentle Christian woman who asked me how many classroom lessons I taught in a week to each class. I said, “Five”. She then responded with, “How many of those are outstanding?” I answered “One.” “How many are good?” “Three.” “And how many are not as good as you’d like them?” “At least one.” “So why then are you setting different standards for your chapels? Should you not be aiming for one outstanding chapel, three good ones, and one that’s a bit ordinary?”

Good point, right? My expectations of myself were too high, and since then, I have worked (with more and less success) to keep my expectations realistic.

Since those early experiences, I have come to rely on the wisdom of others to assist me when my mental health flags. For example, when I experienced post-natal depression, I reached out to my parish priest, found support, a listening ear and a casserole on the doorstep! I have always tried to model proactive support-seeking to my colleagues in the schools where I have ministered, making no secret of the fact that I see a psychologist half a dozen times each year to simply help me reframe my thinking and clarify my self-care routine.

I have always accessed psychologist services through my employer’s (school or Diocese) Employee Assistance Program or EAP (our current EAP provider is Flourish). I do this for two reasons. One, so that I can reassure my colleagues that the services are easily accessed and suitable, because I’ve done it myself. And two, because it’s free. Even on the one occasion where a psychologist was not a great fit with me (and they really don’t mind you saying so and asking for someone else), I rejoiced that I got to sit and talk about myself for an hour to someone who listened without talking about themselves!! It’s pretty liberating!

It is my practice now to see a psychologist six times each year, in between visits to my Spiritual Director. I also look out for the signs that I’m not coping – withdrawing or striving to be creative out of an empty bucket – and attend to them before they become a problem.

Your stress responses may be different to mine, but be attentive to them, and seek assistance and support as soon as you can, whether through your network of supporters or the ACSQ’s Flourish program.

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