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Hope for the Grieving at Christmas

I have been asked to write December's blog on grief and Christmas. I have given it much thought, and actually delayed in writing it, because it is strikes too close to home for me.. Christmas: For some it is Merry Christmas; Happy Holidays; Joyous Noel; Most Wonderful Time of the Year; Rocking Around the Christmas Tree. But for others perhaps, it is Silent Night; Blue Christmas; All I want for Christmas; I'll Be Home for get it? We don’t understand and ask, why do parents bury their 11 year old son. Why do daughters look through a window outside to say goodbye to their mom? Why are first time moms losing their first unborn child? Why are wives burying their husband through sickness or tragic loss? Why are husbands holding the hands of their life partner as they say farewell? Why are children, young and old, not able to wish their parents "Merry Christmas" or stand at the Christmas card display to find that perfect card that says it all? Yet through all of this pain every December it comes, the 12th month of the year. With it comes tinsel, trees, colourful lights, carols, Christmas parties, and celebrations. We think, well maybe not this year! Then it comes -- December 25th. The day we have been waiting for with all its wrappings and bows; turkey, stuffing, and killer gravy; cookies, chocolates, and eggnog. We will celebrate with everyone with Joyous Noel on our faces while our hearts are playing ‘Silent Night’ or ‘All I want for Christmas is You’. The celebration comes from the joy we see in the eyes and faces of our children or grandchildren. We celebrate this because of HOPE. The HOPE that a baby born in a manger brought to us over 2000 years ago. Jesus is our HOPE, my HOPE. Even though grief and loss is felt so deeply during this time of year, I still have the HOPE of eternity. I have the PEACE that comes from the Prince of Peace. My Wonderful Counselor fills my heart with comfort. He will never leave me because he is my Everlasting Father and a Mighty God. ‘Isaiah 9:6’. My encouragement to you during ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ is to celebrate! Take the time to remember your loved one you are missing and grieving. Hang an ornament on your tree in their memory. Light a candle. Wrap a gift with your thoughts and memories in it and just put it under the tree. Make their favourite Christmas cookie. My mom's aprons have been special to me and my nieces. Now I have started a Christmas tradition of giving my four girls a new apron at Christmas time. My ‘Simple Christmas Wish for You’ is that the HOPE of the Christ Child will fill your hearts. May He be your PEACE, COUNSELOR, and EVERLASTING FATHER this Christmas Season.

Is It Well With Your Soul?

by Rebecca Hicks, RN BScN You may have heard the song, “It is Well with My Soul” by Horatio Spafford. The first verse of the song says “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul”. Horatio endured many tragic losses in his lifetime before writing the lyrics to this well-known hymn. It is bewildering to me that after losing most of his fortune and community to a devastating fire, and losing all four of his daughters at sea, that he could write the words “It is well with my soul”. What does that even mean, it is well with my soul? And how is it possible for our soul to be well if everything else in our lives is not going so well? What is Your Soul? A simple google search will inform you that the soul is the spiritual part of a human being. You won’t find the soul in an X-ray or MRI scan. The soul is mentioned many times in the Bible, often in conjunction with the mind and the heart. The soul is the part of our body that lives on after we die. As a believer in Christ, we believe that once our time ends here on earth, our soul leaves our body and goes into the presence of God where we will live for eternity (Romans 5:21, 6:20-23). How Do We Care for Our Soul? There are many ways to take care of our soul. I can honestly say that I make these various practices a regular part of my life which I think not only helps my soul, but my mind and my heart as well. Anytime my life has felt unbalanced by life’s tribulations and trials, by taking the time to care for my spirit, God has lifted me out of the pits and restored my soul. Before we dive into practical ways to nurture our soul, I want to quickly differentiate Soul Care from Self-Care. Soul Care speaks to nurturing our spirit, the part of us that is connected to God. It involves sharing the “nooks and crannies” of your heart and mind with your Creator. Self-care, on the other hand, involves doing various activities that you enjoy to help restore, rest, and rejuvenate your mind and body. Self-care is focused on yourself, as the name so explicitly implies, and might involve warm bubble baths, nature walks, reading, listening to music, doing a hobby you love, or going to a spa. Soul Care goes a little deeper, nourishing our spirit, which often leads to a deeper replenishing. Focussing on our soul may lead to repentance, clarity, forgiveness, renewed purpose and inspiration. Both Self-Care and Soul Care are important for everyone who walks this earth; it’s the way God’s designed us. On that note, let’s dive deeper into three practical ways we can take care of our soul. Quiet Time; With the One Who Knows You Best Perhaps the most readily available but not necessarily the easiest way involves spending intentional quiet time with our Maker. I’m talking about no distractions, no music, no TV, no phone, just YOU and G.O.D. If you haven’t done this in a while I strongly encourage you to do this! A couple months ago I was having a really frustrating day (parenting fails, COVID, struggling with my purpose…just to name a few) and just felt so edgy and negative. I listened to my husband who encouraged me to get out of the house for a little while that evening. I parked along the Niagara River and planned on listening to some worship music and walking along the trail. As I started to put my headphones on, a thought popped in my mind: “just walk with me, no music, just you and Me.” I listened, and proceeded to walk and talk with God. I told God my frustrations and asked for His help and forgiveness. I talked with Him about my fears, and thanked Him for all the good things He was doing in my life. God gently pointed to some things in my heart that needed adjusting. When I returned to my car an hour or so later, I felt like a different woman! God had lifted my spirits and given me a peace that I did not have before I had some alone time with Him. Although I love being in nature when I want to spend time with God, you do not have to leave your house or even your workplace to do this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve have some quiet moments with God even just in my car on my work break, and how it’s totally reshaped the rest of my stressful day. It’s often during these quiet times that God will reveal things to us if we allow Him into every part of our life; yes, every nook and cranny; the good, the bad, and the ugly! “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18 Food for Our Soul We have been given a beautiful tool to help us navigate our lives. Yes, I’m talking about the Word of God, a love letter to His people, the Bible! Gone are the days when the only way you could hear about the words of the Bible were by listening to priests and prophets. Here in Canada-and many places around the world- we have the privilege of owning our own copy of the Bible in its entirety. As followers of Christ, we need to be reading God’s words for ourselves, and not solely relying on our church and pastors to “feed us the word”. Our pastors and spiritual leaders can most definitely help us understand the Bible, but we also need to be studying the words our God has given us for ourselves. I still find it fascinating that even after reading the Bible for as long as I can remember, I STILL read things in the Bible that amaze me, challenge me, encourage me, and sometimes confuses me. If you aren’t already doing this, I challenge you to read the Bible daily and see how your life changes. I used to be horrible at regularly reading my Bible. A couple years ago I felt convicted, thinking about the time I would spend daily on my phone, in front of the TV, etc., and how I made little to no time reading the most important piece of literature known to man. I started by reading a few chapters a day and after doing this consistently, it became a habit that I enjoy and look forward to each day. Do you want to feel empowered and encouraged before you start your crazy day? Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.“ I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be equipped with a sword (the word of God) than my phone (aka social media shenanigans) for my day. Ouch! Sorry, but I’m only speaking what God has revealed in my life, and maybe it speaks to your life too! Jeff Wells, founding pastor of Woods Edge Community Church in Texas, says it this way “The Bible tells us how to find joy, peace and contentment. It shines a light into the darkness of the world and makes sense of the confusion.” Not only does it help us make sense of the world, but it also helps us to be better. The Bible constantly points us to forgive others, love others, give to others, and experience God’s peace. Jesus even says that we will be blessed for following God’s word “…But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice”, Luke 11:28. He also calls us his family when we hear God’s word and obey it (Luke 8:21). I don’t know about you, but that’s a family I would love to be a part of. Church Family Speaking of family, there’s another family we are invited into as believers of Christ. Yep, that’s right, our church family. The church is a great place to find rest and care for your soul. Let me start by saying, I’m not talking about having to go to church to be a good Christian and to make it into heaven. I’m talking about meeting in person (or via video calls these days) with Christians in worshipping, encouraging, challenging, and equipping each other. Attending or watching a Sunday church service is important for learning, reflecting, and equipping us for the week ahead, but the church is meant to go way beyond this. The original churches which were birthed out of Jesus’ ministry, not only taught its members about salvation and how to love others, but it also challenged, inspired, and encouraged people how to live. Speaking from my own experience, when my husband David and I have participated in Bible Studies (or Life Groups) with a smaller group of people from our larger church, we have been able to connect with other believers in a more intimate way than we ever could by attending a Sunday service. In our homes (or over video calls) we are able to pray with, encourage, and challenge each other. It can also be a place where you can BE the church to your community. Our Life Groups have had many opportunities where we have been able to provide items to people who needed it, meals for people in poor health, boxes of toys for children living in poverty, etc. This is what the church is called to do! And not only does it serve the purpose of loving and giving to others, but it also has an amazing way of filling our soul. I encourage you to not only attend or view a church service, but connect on a deeper level with your brothers and sisters in your church, especially during this time. Allow God to use his church to care for your soul. Conclusion I want to circle back to the question I posed at the start of this blog. How is it possible for our soul to be well if everything else in our lives is not going so well? I believe the answer to this lies in what we believe on a spiritual level. If we are living for today with no hope for life beyond this world, it’s so easy to be drowned by life’s injustices. However, if we are living a life on purpose, connected to our Saviour in hopes for life He promises beyond this world, it has to be well with our soul. This doesn’t mean that we won’t feel depression, anxiety, or fear. It means we know Who we can turn to with our deepest worries and fears. Let’s stop looking to the world to fix our soul and instead looking to the creator of our soul who is the ultimate healer and designer of our soul. May your soul find rest in Him.


by Rebecca Hicks, RN BScN Fear is something we are born with. Minutes after a baby is born they will “startle” and cry when they hear loud noises and feel the cold air; a stark difference from their world inside the womb. As we age our fears often change from fears of the dark to fears of failure, sickness, and death. Think of how many things we do on a daily basis that-if stripped down to the core- is based in fear! Can’t think of any examples? How about wearing your seatbelt (fear of getting into car accident or getting a ticket), brushing your teeth (fear of rotting teeth and gums), checking your bank account (fear of not having enough money to pay your bills), crossing the street when you see a large barking dog (fear of getting attacked) just to name a few. Of course these are all good fears as they keep us healthy and safe, and can potentially steer us from disaster. But sometimes we fear too much, which can lead to a chronic state of stress. My hope is that after reading today’s blog you will come to understand what fear is, how our body responds to fear, and how we can overcome fear. Biological Perspective of Fear Fear is defined as “a distressing emotion caused by impending danger whether the threat is real or imagined”. When a person encounters a potential harm, the amygdala (found in your brain) interprets this information and generates the fear emotion. The amygdala will then send an impulse to the hypothalamus which will initiate the sympathetic nervous system. Various systems throughout the body (endocrine, circulatory, respiratory and others) receive the “fear message” which causes a series of responses. For example, the endocrine system responds by producing adrenaline and cortisone hormones from the adrenal glands (which are located at the top of the kidneys) and pumping these hormones through the blood system. Adrenaline increases heart rate and breathing while cortisone increases blood sugars. When the circulatory and respiratory systems are alerted to the “fear message” (from the hypothalamus) they respond by decreasing the digestive, immune, urinary, and the reproductive system. All of these biological response are designed to help you in responding to the fear, whether that means to fight, flight, or freeze! Isn’t it amazing how God created us? Fear can be a really good thing in helping us to survive, but when we fear constantly, our nervous system is running in over-drive, which can lead to chronic stress. When our bodies experience chronic stress (or fear), our immune and digestive system are altered, sleep cycles can be disturbed, and we can experience things like high blood pressure and tension headaches (just to name a few). Spiritual Perspective of Fear As I was preparing for this blog, I started to think about humans and how fearful we are and why God would create us this way. I was reminded of the very first story in the Bible, back to the Garden of Eden. God had created the heavens, earth, animals, Adam, Eve, and saw that all was good. Adam and Eve lived in harmony with God and the creatures of the world, having no needs that were unmet, and there was no mention of fear. Satan enters the scene, the sneaky snake, who plants the idea in Eve’s head that she is missing out by not eating from the one tree God asked them not to touch. This may be the first mention of FOMO (fear of missing out) in history! Eve starts to wonder what she is missing out on by not eating from the tree of knowledge and gives in to the snake’s temptation. After convincing her husband to eat the fruit, fear enters in. Realizing they are naked, they fear how God is going to respond, and at that moment their whole life changes (and the rest of humanity for that matter). It’s pretty evident in the remaining hundreds of stories in the Bible, how fearful humans are and the need for help beyond our own abilities. Story after story in the Bible reveal humans facing adversity such as living under evil dictators, infertility, famine, wars, and slavery. And story after story we read of courageous men and women choosing to trust in God who sees them through, performs miracles, and changes impossible situations. Freedom from Fear I’ll start by saying that as a nurse, I’m totally behind traditional therapies to overcome fear such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. Although I’m not trained to do these therapies with my clients (I leave that to our highly skilled social workers!), I’ve seen clients do amazing with therapy in overcoming their fears and anxieties. This is a great solution for anyone suffering from specific fears or chronic anxiety. As a Christian, I can’t help but want to explore this issue a little deeper spiritually, and I feel that I can do that here in this forum. If I haven’t lost you yet, continue along with me to consider what I mean. It’s important when we are fearful to dig deeper and see what the root cause is of the fear. Sometimes the root cause is that we are afraid of failure, other times it may be that we are afraid of giving up control. I believe that the underlying reason behind many of our fears is our fear of death, especially during a global pandemic! Going back to the examples I used at the beginning, we wear a seat belt to avoid death, we fear not being able to provide for our families because if we don’t have shelter and food we’ll die. We fear death because we don’t want to leave our families behind and we don’t know what comes after death. However, the Bible tells us that we don’t need to fear death, because Jesus Christ died and rose again to give us eternal life with Him. All we need to do is believe in Him, that’s it (John 3:16). Speaking from my own experience, knowing that there is life beyond this earth, and knowing that there is a God who loves me and cares for me, gives me a freedom like I’ve never experienced before. Sure, I still have fears and daily anxieties. But, I continually give these fears and worries to God over and over, and it provides me with a peace beyond anything I’ve ever experienced (no self-care, mindfulness routine has ever come close). Practical Ways to Overcome Fear Here are some practical ways to overcome our daily fears and those bigger fears that we carry with us on the daily. I pray that you will find hope and peace from fear. Replace your fearful thoughts with things that are true. Here are some Bible verses that have provided me with comfort in fearful times: -“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self- discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7 -“Be strong and courageous…Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” 1 Chronicles 28:20 -“The Lord is my light and my salvation- so why should I be afraid? The Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger, so why should I tremble?” Psalm 27:1-2 -“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 -“So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the Lord God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.” Deuteronomy 31:6 Listen to worship music, here’s a few songs that I’ve found comforting: -Ain’t No Grave- Bethel Music & Molly Skaggs -Highs & Lows- Hillsong Young & Free -No Longer Slaves- Bethel Music -Fear is a Liar- Zach Williams -Surrounded (Fight My Battles)-UPPERROOM -Defender –UPPERROOM Pray, pray, and pray again. Give your requests, fears, worries, and even those ugly thoughts to God. He is completely aware of your thought and He is not troubled by them. Talk to Him, lean into Him, be comforted in His love and strength. Disclaimer: As with all the blogs I write for Agora Network Ministries, the information I present is not intended as medical advice. Please consult with a medical professional, therapist, or person you trust if you are struggling and need help beyond what you are currently receiving. There is hope and life beyond our fears and struggles. Take the first step and reach out for it. Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash


Blog by Rebecca Hicks RN, BScN I hope everyone has had a great summer travelling locally, spending time with family, and enjoying the slower pace of life! Although life has changed for most people around the globe, I am feeling so blessed and thankful for living in bountiful Canada. Having said that, I know there are still lots of people both in Canada and around the globe that have been struggling physically, mentally, and spiritually, and this pandemic can bring out the worst. As I’ve been preparing to write this blog I have been praying for my readers, that you will experience God’s peace and comfort wherever you are at during this time. My good friend and founder of Agora Network Ministry, Allan Gallant, will be doing some talks about Suicide Prevention during the month of September on his radio show (Friday at 6pm EST on station 90.7 or online at: He has asked me to write about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and how it can affect our thoughts about suicide. So if this topic interests you, I encourage you to read on! What is PTSD? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a term used to describe a series of symptoms that someone may experience following a traumatic event. A traumatic event includes anything that produces intense fear such as war, violent crimes, natural disasters, car accidents, traumatic health events (such as surgery or treatments), and even witnessing a traumatic event can cause PTSD symptoms. Symptoms of PTSD can include panic attacks, nightmares, repetitive thoughts related to the event, intense flashbacks emotional numbness, detachment, loss of interest, sleeplessness, and increased anxiety. A common example of PTSD is what happened to many soldiers following the First World War. Many war veterans were diagnosed with “shell shock” (later termed PTSD) as they experienced extreme anxiety when hearing loud noises that reminded them of the sounds they heard while fighting in the war. These soldiers were reported to have many of the symptoms listed above, changing their personality and behaviours from who they used to be before serving in the war. Researchers have found that there are psychological, neurochemical and endocrinological alterations that can occur following a traumatic event. When PTSD Turns to Hopelessness Like many mental health disorders, people who suffer from PTSD may experience suicidal thoughts. PTSD can be debilitating, affecting the person’s ability to think and function normally. Fears can become all-consuming and crippling. PTSD can cause the person to feel hopeless and unsure of the future. They may start to feel that life is too difficult, that it would be better if they didn’t wake up, that they will never be able to overcome or “get over” the event. It is common for people who are experiencing PTSD to self-harm and/or over-indulge in substances (alcohol and drugs) to cope with the intense feelings that they are experiencing. Unfortunately suicidal thoughts can start to develop, which is a very dangerous and serious symptom. Turning Hopelessness into Hope Fortunately, there are many treatment options available to treat PTSD today. Like other anxiety disorders, PTSD can be effectively treated with therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and support groups. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is also an effective form of therapy for treating PTSD, which involves processing the traumatic event with a qualified therapist and learning how to “rewire” the reaction to the memory. Medication can also be very effective in overcoming the symptoms of PTSD, as a short-term or long-term solution. Medications for PTSD usually include antidepressants. Family therapy is also an important tool that can be used in supporting the person and family members affected by PTSD. Family therapy or counseling can effectively educate family members on how to best support their loved one suffering from PTSD and can also give guidelines to family members on how to create healthy boundaries and limits. Where is God in PTSD? PTSD is not new. Humans-for as long as we’ve been created- have been experiencing various forms of traumatic events throughout our lifetime. Fear is an innate, natural, cerebral reaction that we have all been born with and know all too well. Although fear can easily control our lives, we also have been given the ability to overcome fear. Let me repeat that. You can overcome fear. God can give you peace that is supernatural, unexplainable, and life-changing (I’ve experienced it first-hand). The road to peace from trauma may involve a combination of the tools I’ve listed above as treatment methods, it may involve prayer and possibly forgiveness, and it will take time. I encourage anyone experiencing fear from trauma to give your thoughts, worries, and feelings to God. Allow Him to heal you. Invite Him in, to give you guidance on where to turn, what resources you might need, and who to share your story with. With God there is hope. What the Bible Says Lucky for us, the Bible provides so many helpful words about fear. Here is a few that I have found comforting, and I hope will speak to you: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7. “Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 “Look up into the heavens, Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights? Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:26-31 “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea.” Psalm 46:1-2 “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” 1 Peter 5:7

The Gut-Brain Connection: Nutrition’s Role in Mental Health

by Jane Wood (posted with permission) Our current medical model of clinical care for the treatment of mental illness focuses on pharmaceutical and psychotherapeutic approaches with limited consideration of holistic interventions, such as nutrition. The intention of this article is not to down play the importance of clinical options to mental health care, rather to shine awareness on the role nutrition plays in a mental health treatment plan. As the medical community continues to investigate ways to develop more comprehensive treatment plans for mental illness, we gain a greater understanding of nutrition and its link to mental wellbeing. Let us start with the gastrointestinal system to understand its relationship to mental health. You may have heard that the gut is our second brain, but what does that really mean? The gastrointestinal system, also known as the digestive system, starts with smelling food and continues through the body until waste is eliminated. It is the process where the body receives the nutritional resources it requires to support all human functions, including the brain. In a healthy brain, neurons, or the communication cells, tell the body how to behave. To do this it relies on a steady supply of chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are responsible for regulating feelings and emotions. Some of these are known as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. In people who are diagnosed with a mental illness such as Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Schizophrenia or with a Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, something disrupts how the brain sends and receives its messages. The good news is, often these illness can be managed by taking pharmaceuticals containing the neurotransmitters that are impaired. So what does this have to do with the gut? The brain and digestive systems are connected by the Central Nervous System (CNS) through the gut-brain axis. As mentioned earlier, the brain communicates using neurons and neurotransmitters. There are over 100 billion neurons found in the brain and 500 billion in the gut, this is how the two talk. Similarly, neurotransmitters are produced in the brain with a majority of them also produced by cells and bacteria in the gut. The main nerve used in this communication process is known as the Vagus nerve, the largest nerve in the CNS, running from the guts to the brain. Any stress on the body, can damage this vital communication process resulting in either a mental or gastrointestinal disorder and in some extreme cases both. There is one last thing to discuss before we learn how nutrition assists in mental health, the immune and inflammation responses. The immune system plays an important role in our health, including mental wellbeing. The body’s normal immune response is designed to attack toxic or foreign invaders in the body, neutralizing the threat and we usually feel better. However when the body is exposed to extreme amounts of stress whether physical, chemical or emotional; our immune system starts to act in unusual ways. When the body starts to see everything as an immune threat and stays turned on for too long it leads to undesirable and persistent inflammation. The inflammatory response, like the immune one, is the body’s way to promote healing when we are wounded. Constant demands on these system have negative impacts on our vital body functions, especially the gastrointestinal system. When digestion is malfunctioning nutrition is not being absorbed, leading to more stress on the body thus demanding more from the immune and inflammatory systems – and the circle continues. It is well researched that when these systems are not functioning it can lead to an increase of symptoms in mental illness especially depression, dementia and schizophrenia. So how can food help? Hippocrates famous quote says “Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.” The prevention and healing of all health conditions can be greatly assisted by paying attention to the food we consume to fuel our body. Unfortunately, in today’s world we move at such a fast pace it was only natural that our food also followed this trend. This results in humans consuming excessive amounts of highly processed food. In addition to being nutritionally deficient, these foods cause major stress on the body which further dysregulates immune and inflammation functions as described above. This plays a negative role in symptom management in people living with mental illness. The more processed food we consume, the more likely our mental wellbeing will suffer. It is impossible to describe all of the dietary changes required to support mental health in just one blog. The aim of this article is to start thinking about the foods we eat and how they either benefit or damage our health. To start, regardless if you have been diagnosed with a mental illness or if you are living a regular stress filled life, we can all reduce the amount of processed foods we consume. Begin by reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists and consider the following recommendations: • Aim for no more than 4 grams of added sugar daily; • Avoid artificial sweeteners as they can cause the same damage to the body as regular sugar; • Eliminate foods that contain trans fatty acids, such as chips, crackers, frozen prepared foods and most fast food items; • Choose foods that contain 5 ingredients or less; and • Avoid “white” foods such as bread, pasta, cereals and baked goods made with white flour. As this blog series grows we will explore in depth the role nutrition plays in the healing process, especially for those walking a mental health journey. It is our hope that you gained some insight into how our digestive system and brain are connected and to begin shifting our beliefs surrounding mental illness and nutrition. Jane Wood The Mindful Nutritionist

The Wounded Healer: Embracing Your Brokenness

PASTOR TO PASTOR by Allen Kleine Deters, Pastor Care Coordinator Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains, but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share. ~ Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer. Pastors come into ministry for different reasons. I know. I know, of course, we all come into it out of a calling by God, or at least of sorts. I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek because people go into the pastorate for a variety of reasons and not all because of a calling. Some of you reading that statement may reel a little thinking, that cannot be! But it is true. I have met numerous pastors who found themselves in ministry to fulfil their own core longings for validation, belonging, a sense of worth and, even a family heritage of a long line of pastors. Now, that is not to say that a calling by God was not a part of that picture, but at the same time, “calling” may not have been the original motivator. When I first came to know Christ personally, I was in my grade 12 year and was coming from a very rebellious, promiscuous, drug and alcohol ridden four years. I remember the shattering encounter with God and felt such freedom from my bondage and strongholds. I immediately believed being so committed to Jesus I needed to be a missionary in some foreign land. I thought I could use my farming ability and knowledge to go help people in developing countries become sustainable farmers and I’d get to share Jesus’ love and gospel at the same time. I headed to Bible college in Michigan. It was there I discovered that while I had gifts that could be used on the foreign mission field, they would probably be more suited for ministry at home, particularly youth ministry. It made sense to me and so I pursued that and my passion grew. God answered my prayers and I eventually became a youth pastor and served a few churches over seventeen years. Part of that time I was also co-planting a church with another pastor. We moved the family from Alberta to Colorado to make that happen. I believe 100% it was God’s calling. I know it was. I felt the nudges and pull of the Holy Spirit and received the affirmation of the community to feel confident in moving forward. People were coming to know Jesus and some pretty amazing kingdom work was happening. Ministry was no walk in the park, however. Throughout my ministry career, I encountered difficulties and even frustrations I thought would never happen. There were times I was running off my power and pretending it was God’s power. I even encountered some real trauma through conflicts during my ministry career. What I didn’t realize was how they had affected me. What I also didn’t realize was how my past played a role in my responses. Some of my coping was not healthy by any means. And in my guilt — although unrecognized — I was becoming numb in my relationship with God. I wasn’t hearing much from God, nor was I listening or spending a lot of time with him. I was not opposed to counselling by any means. And when another trauma hit, when we decided to close the second church plant, I crashed. I burned out and for two weeks I was in a daze, grieving profusely and in a deep depression. I headed to counselling. I had been in counselling before when we were married just five years and I was struggling with anger. Some things from my childhood surfaced then, but somehow I hadn’t pursued the healing necessary although I got my anger in check. Now, a whole lot began to surface and I started confronting these things head-on. My mentor at the time told me to cling to Jesus and go deep. He got me reading Henri Nouwen and Watchman Nee. These writers helped direct me toward a more honest and raw path with God. At times the Holy Spirit exposed me in a way I did not want to be. I was confronted with my false self and I didn’t like what I saw. Nonetheless, it was a very healing journey that led me to seminary to finally get my MDiv. I kept pursuing a deeper more contemplative relationship with God. I had some more counselling and found more healing and long times of solitude and silence with the Holy Spirit. It became less difficult to deal with the traumas I had faced over the years. I was on a journey with still a long way to go. I’m still on that journey. I had to confront some things about myself I didn’t like. One major stronghold in my life was people-pleasing deeply rooted in a past where I never felt I was good enough through family dynamics and the bullying I had endured. I would lead and preach, engage with people in a way that they would like me, and I was good at it. Of course, people-pleasing can be codependence and is an issue of identity. As I became more solid in my identity in Jesus, I felt less and less the need to be liked by others. I cared less about what they thought of me. Even as a performer — I’m a musician — I don’t really care what the audience thinks anymore. I just enjoy playing music. Hey, if they invite me back, I guess they liked the music. What has echoed with me these many years on this emotional, mental health, and spiritual journey are the words from Henri Nouwen, “Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains, but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share.” I am reminded that we “all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23, that I am no different than any other human being. I bring the healthy and unhealthy in me to the work God calls me to. It is okay to admit and address it. In fact, it is necessary. Peter Scazzero rightly points out that the health of a church begins with the emotional/mental and spiritual health of the leadership. “The key to successful spiritual leadership has much more to do with the leader’s internal life than with the leader’s expertise, gifts, or experience.” (The Emotionally Healthy Church p.20). When Jesus calls us to deny ourselves pastors have often taken it to mean, “dying to self-care, to feelings of sadness, to anger, to grief, to doubt, to struggles, to our healthy dreams and desires, and to passions we had enjoyed…” p.22. I will say this, and you will read it often, faith and mental health are NOT mutually exclusive. They are INDEPENDENT of one another. You can be a person of deep faith and still struggle with your mental health. (Borrowed from Dr. Danjuma Gibson, Professor of Pastoral Care, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan) I’m also reminded of Jesus’ calling, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28. And, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” Matthew 5:6 Some of you have been limping along for years in ministry neglecting the healing you so desperately need; a past you need to confront, trauma unexamined, mental health in shambles. I encourage you to hinder the journey no longer. Today is the day. Talk to someone. Find a confidant, a spiritual director, counsellor — all support necessary. For the sake of faithfulness to the call God has given, for your mental and spiritual health, seek healing. Your family and congregation will thank you for it and God will be glorified through you. It’s okay to recognize that you are a wounded healer as are we all. Allen Kleine Deters is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church denomination and has served in various full-time ministry positions for 34 years. He is now serving with Agora Network Ministries as the Pastor Care Coordinator supporting pastors and churches in support of their pastors. Allen serves as the host of Pastor to Pastor, a radio program on Hope for the Agora heard on the last Friday of the month on Praise FM, Cape Breton. Contact:

The Coming Pastoral Crash

Guest: John Dobbs, republished with permission. This is Allen: I am currently enrolled in an intensive spring course through Calvin Theological Seminary called, Pastoral Care, Trauma and Mental Health in a COVID-shaped World. It is excellent and I appreciate the holistic approach. One of the areas we are focusing on is Ambiguous loss and trauma. Ambiguous loss has to do with losses where things have so changed that it requires a grieving to a level and there is often no closure. An extreme example would be when a loved one goes missing and no one is certain whether they are dead or alive, for instance in a plane crash where no body is recovered. There is no closure. The trauma happens when we get stuck at the moment of loss and how it happened. In a lesser way (but still as important), ambiguous loss can be something like we are experiencing now with COVID-19, there will be such changes to how we do church or engage in group acitivities, it can feel like a loss. For pastors, it can be extreme and perhaps even traumatic. Here is a republished blog by John Dobbs who granted me permission to share it with you. I don’t want to be a prophet of doom, but as a minister in touch with many ministers, I see a coming pastoral crash. And I’m not sure we can stop it. The impact of the world response to COVID-19 will be felt for many years to come. It will be felt in every career field and in every home. This post does not diminish the hard work and adjustments being done by first responders, law enforcement, health care workers, and the educational structures. But from my perspective, those who serve in ministry are, in my thinking, in particular danger for several reasons. They are serving in ways for which they have no training or experience. At first, this is energizing and sparks our creative thoughts. This energized feeling does not last, however. It is neither exciting for the minister nor the congregants after a month or so. They are doing their best, but unable to keep it up. Frankly, it is draining. Ministers fall into the comparison trap. Some ministries were already online and have everything they need in place. Many of us, however, did not. We look at what other churches are producing and that makes our efforts feel not worth it. They are worried about ministries that are unable to operate, and if they will be able to operate later. Some of the ministries that are very important such as support groups, specialized Bible classes (ladies, mens, teens), and Bible camps and retreats are unable to meet. The people who utilize those kinds of ministry need the support still, they are just unable to be in the same room together. Young people are missing out on the fellowship that can strengthen their young spiritual walk. The mental and physical health of our congregations is a huge concern. They are exhausted. Less gathering does not equal less work. If a minister is worthy of his or her calling, they are not afraid of hard work. Some members might assume that since there are no current meetings at the church building the ministers have a lot of free time. When I talk to ministers, I get the opposite impression. They are doing things they are not accustomed to doing. There is an endless array of glitches when it comes to online ministry. More, the mind of a minister is constantly thinking about how to bless his people and community – and the response to COVID-19 makes this more difficult to navigate. They are not feeding their souls. Perhaps some ultra self-disciplined ministers are growing during this season, but what I observe is that they are so involved in this new ministry model that they have no down time. One friend said that he thought during the ‘stay at home’ time he would read many books that he had on his ‘to read’ list. Not so. The future is cloudy. Ministers would like to plan ahead, forecast a visionary approach to the work, and proceed with energized hopes. However, like everyone else, ministers do not know what happens the next day, much less the next five Sundays. Contingency plans can be made, but one never knows what the next steps ought to be. From everything I read, we are looking at resurgence of the virus in the Fall, and what one government official called a ‘long dark winter’. The collapse of the job and financial markets impacts churches. No doubt churches will close, having reached the end of savings and not receiving enough income to go on. Most churches in America are less than 100 members, leaving them vulnerable to shutdowns, loss of jobs for ministers, and significant issues with debt. This weighs on ministry staff and can cause a great deal of stress. They are physically not healthy. I don’t want to mention this, but it has been pointed out many times that many in ministry are overweight, stressed, do not exercise or observe a healthy diet. Additional stress in all the areas mentioned above will have a negative result on the minister’s health. Although there is a lot of humor being expressed about eating our way through the pandemic, that probably won’t feel funny in the ER. They have conformed to a 7 day schedule. Ministers usually have one or two days “off” per week like most people. Also most ministers are self-reporting. There’s no one making sure they work as they are asked, nor demanding that they take their time off. Church leaders should urge their ministers to take their time off seriously. Now that the awareness of what day it is has been jumbled, many are working seven days a week and not taking any sabbath rest. This is leading to depression, exhaustion, and loss of heart for the work. They are unwilling to take time off. How can a minister consider taking a week off during a pandemic? The idea of travel is just now becoming more of a possibility – but it still carries its risks. In addition, who is going to see that all the online stuff happens if the minister is out of pocket? I know ministers who were set to take sabbaticals, but instead are running on fumes, unable to get away. Congregational leadership is not doing itself any favors by expecting the ministry staff to run full steam ahead when they do not have any steam left. They do not seek out mental health. Some years ago a well known pastor suggested that all ministers should see a therapist once a month. We spend significant time helping other people with their problems. Although the wisest of us refer those with mental health issues to a certified counselor, we still worry about others. And we do not take care of our own mental health. Since ministers are in a helping profession, they often do not see the need to receive help themselves. There is an attempt to minister out of the emptiness of the soul which I think will result in dangerous decisions and perspectives. The recent death of minister Darren Patrick may have been a result of pressures pre-COVID-19, but certainly the pandemic did not help matters. They are in dangerous spiritual territory. Weakened and exhausted, temptations that once were not so strong have now grown irresistible. Coping with the stress of this situation by numbing the pain with drugs, alcohol, pornography, gluttony, excessive television … or anything to excess. Resistance is low to temptations that invade the minister’s private space. "I believe we are going to see the affects of this pandemic on the ministers in all denominations." All of this leads me to conclude that there is a coming pastoral crash. And I don’t think we can stop it. Our pastoral care providers are maxed out. While some church members might think their preacher’s duties are relaxed, but it is actually the opposite. As we head into the coming months I believe we are going to see the affects of this pandemic on the ministers in all denominations. I’m tempted to write out a list of things we need to do now to avoid the crash. There are many articles already available (see links below) offering strategies for good mental and physical health. But it’s hard to get preachers and ministry staff to slow down long enough to look in the mirror. It is equally hard to find church leaders who demand that their ministers slow down and get help. The impact of ministry job losses, minister burn outs, and ministry suicide is going to be a major event for the church to deal with in the coming year. The best strategy I know *Ministers must commit to ministering to their own hearts first. Engage in the spiritual disciplines, re-engage frayed family relationships, restart physical exercise and rest, or take time to rest and read non-work-related relaxing books. Whatever feeds your heart, you should do it. Now. If you are waiting for the pandemic to be over, you might not survive. *Ministers must commit to look out for one another. To speak into the lives of those we perceive are growing weaker will be a means of rescue for them (and perhaps yourself). We know that congregational leaders simply do not know the ministerial life. They love their preachers, but they don’t live in the same world. Just as we do not live in the world of other occupations (which are facing their own crises). So, wherever you can be with other ministers and look out for one another, do so. Facebook groups, calls, emails, and now I think you can start to meet together observing social distancing…. reach out to your fellow ministers. Pray for and with one another. I hope I’ve overstated the case, been a worry wart, and this post won’t age well. I hope in a year you’ll call me ‘chicken little’ worried about the sky falling. But I doubt it. ADDENDUM: I could not have foreseen the impact of sharing these thoughts on my blog. I am grateful that most of you found value here, and I hope some encouragement in knowing you are not alone. I have updated the links with some of those shared in the comments. I thank you for sharing and talking about these issues we are facing now. Praying for peace and perception on how to honor God and love His people, one day at a time. Out here, hope remains. JED

The Hurting Pastor: My Story

by Rev. Allen Kleine Deters, Pastor Care Coordinator, Agora Network Ministries The year 2019 was the worst year of my life. It really exploded in early 2018 and just ramped up into the next year. Not only was I struggling with cancer, but a broken marriage and clinical depression which all led to my leaving ministry and leaving a young church plant to fend for itself. The whole thing felt Job-esque (I made that up meaning my life-hell resembled that of Job’s). I seriously contemplated suicide numerous times. I just wanted the pain to stop. At one time I mentioned to someone who had come over to stay with me as a support in a very dark time, that I would rather be with Jesus than to keep on going through all of the stress and the emotional and physical pain I was feeling. My depression had soared so out of control, I frightened myself. Never had I been in such a dark place. I want you to understand something about me. On the outside you would never peg me as a depressed person. Admittedly, I realized that I have struggled at some level with depression my whole life but had very healthy coping skills I developed on my own growing up. For me creative outlets were my saving grace. I would draw or play and write music. Anything creative, from writing to fly-tying was a reprieve and gave me energy to cope. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these became coping mechanisms for my depression. Sometimes these coping strategies which had come natural for me were a source of frustration for my wife who watched me dive into one creative interest after another, sometimes interfering with our relationship and work. I had no clue that all this was somehow tied into my struggle with depression or that I even had depression. This connection didn’t become known to me until I began intensive therapy as I headed into deep clinical depression. Most of my coping mechanisms ceased to be of any use. Besides, I was not even interested in most of them. I stopped playing music (I was a paid musician), stopped reading, writing, drawing, among other things. I didn’t even want to be around people. My only saving grace, besides clinging to Jesus, was my two wheeled motorcycle therapy and playing darts. The only things I read were my Bible and some Henri Nouwen and Brennan Manning. I often found good spiritual counsel through their writing. When I was given a three month leave of absence I put nearly ten thousand kilometres (6,200 miles) on my motorcycle. I traveled and camped with it. When I felt especially anxious, I would just jump on the bike and ride for hours sometimes with a plan and other times with no destination in mind. At the spur of the moment I would pack all my camping gear and just leave maybe for a night or a weekend. One time I left for a week. Three days later I realized I should tell someone, especially my son who was my greatest support who may have dropped by the house discovering I was gone. I would pray and usually rode in silence. I would scream and cry in my helmet. Sometimes I hoped the oncoming truck would careen out of control and take me out doing something I loved. Yes, it was that bad. There were times the despair came thundering in like a train. I was confronted with shame and guilt, disgrace and uncertainties. I was dealing with trauma from my life and ministry I had not dealt with, leaving me exhausted and depleted. I was a pastor yet ready to end it all. Understand that I was also clinging to Jesus. I’ve always had a healthy rhythm of prayer and silence, and lengthy times of solitude with the Lord. Never before had I dove into the contemplative life like I did during this time. I spent regular days in solitude at a local monastery where I prayed, met with a spiritual director, fasted, memorized scripture and laid prostrate in waiting before God gushing out my torment in tears, in heaving sobs. I memorized and recited Psalm 13 and others over and over again. I resigned myself to the mercy of God and his comforting Holy Spirit. I journaled a lot especially at times when I heard what I believed to be a message from God that was always very timely to my current state. And boy did I weep and wail in my agony. As each next foul piece unfolded in my sordid life during the year, I retreated afraid of being overcome by it all. God often answers prayers in ways unexpected. I experienced this time and time again when, just at the right time, someone reached out to me, sometimes unaware of my state. I joined a Soul Care pastors group with Thrive Ministries and found more healing and clarity through sharing and listening for the Holy Spirit. At times I was confronted with myself. At other times I was affirmed of the work of God in my life. Partway on this journey, God brought Allan Gallant back into my life connecting me with Agora Network Ministries for which I will be forever grateful. I had excellent counselling through Niagara Life Centre and was led to a place of deeper understanding and a plan toward healing and managing the depression. I spent a week at a special retreat centre in Colorado called Quiet Waters spending three hours a day for five days with a wonderful Christian psychotherapist. I have very much moved to the other side of all of this in the past eight months and have regained focus and joy due to God’s work in my life through all avenues and resources he has afforded me. As I began to seek God’s direction for what was next, I kept thinking of other pastors who have been struggling with mental health difficulties like me. Their mental health concerned me greatly and I prayed a lot in this regard. As Allan and I began to focus on Agora Network Ministries, I discovered I had a place there. And as it turns out I find myself helping develop the Pastor Care aspect of the ministry, reaching out to pastors and church leadership in need of support and resources toward thriving spiritual and mental health. My friends, God is good. He blesses those who seek his face and hold on to him. *“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” *(Matthew 5:6) The journey may be long and arduous at times, and even downright nasty, but no matter what you are a child of God, beloved by him. “*See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”* (1 John 3:1a). Jesus knows your every struggle and the depth of your pain, and he has overcome. It is ever so comforting to know and experience the deep love that God has for me knowing that he, in full humanity knows what it is like to bear the weight of my sin and shame, emotional and mental agony. *“For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way… Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”* (Hebrews 2:17,18). I know there is no healing without facing what needs to be faced and owning what needs to be owned, AND get the help you need. There is no shame in a struggle with mental health difficulties. And there is God’s grace along the way… ALWAYS GRACE. At the end of the day I can truly say, My only comfort in life and death is this…. That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul in life and in death to my faithful saviour, Jesus Christ He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him. (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A1) Allen Kleine Deters is an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church denomination and has been in full-time ministry for 34 years.

Developing a Mental Health Plan

by Rebecca Hicks, RN BScN Plans are important in life. Plans are used in things like construction, budgets, events, and courses. In many cases if there wasn’t a plan, it can seem disorderly, disorganized, and chaotic. In some cases, not having a plan can lead to disaster. Proverbs 21:5 says, “Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity…” We are reminded in Proverbs 16:3 that when we include God in our plans we will succeed. When it comes to our mental health, it is a good idea to have a plan in place to hopefully avoid some of the negative consequences associated with poor mental health. Even in a medical diagnoses such as hypertension (high blood pressure), your medical team will come up with a plan to avoi d the negative consequences of hypertension. They may ask you to take a medication, reduce your salt intake, exercise regularly, and eat a nutritious diet. They will tell you to try these measures over a period of time and then they’ll re-evaluate. A mental health plan can be developed in a similar way. For some of my readers, they have already developed a mental health plan because of an episode they’ve had in the past. For others, you may not have ever experienced a mental health crisis. It’s still a good idea to plan out what we can do if “x, y, and z” happens. In today’s blog I will focus on some practical ways of developing a mental health plan; all you’ll need to remember is the “three A’s”: Awareness, Action, and Accountability. Step 1: Awareness In order to start, we need to know what we are working with. This is where we really need to look inward and take an analysis of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. What is the theme of my thoughts? Are they negative? Obsessive? Stuck in the past? Are they paranoid? Are they fast or slow? Can I turn off my thoughts when I need to? What is the nature of my emotions? Am I feeling sad most days, happy, or apathetic? Do I feel hopeless? Angry? Stressed? What behaviours have I been acting out? Am I isolating myself from others? Working too much? Using substances (alcohol or drugs)? Not sleeping or oversleeping? Have I had a loss of appetite or have I been overeating? Am I feeling unmotivated? Sometimes this can be difficult to pinpoint, and it’s the loved ones around us that will start to notice changes in our mental health before we ourselves realize. For others, we are very in tune with our emotions and can tell very quickly if things are changing. I often will ask my clients to keep a journal of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. This is usually the easiest way to see patterns. Often times we can pinpoint when the problems started. We may notice that our mental health started to change at a specific time of year (ie. winter season), anniversary of a loved one’s death, or during/following a big life change (new job, recent relationship break up, postpartum). You may notice that you are feeling overwhelmed because you have said “yes” to too many things and have overcrowded your schedule. This is valuable information to have because once we know when or how the issue started, we can try to work through the issue and be prepared if or when there is a next time. Sometimes problems arise out of the blue, there is no specific reason for there to be an issue. We can still plan for these types of episodes too. The key is be aware of our thoughts, emotions and behaviours and take notice of how often troubling thoughts and emotion are happening in the course of a day, week, or month. Step 2: Action Once we are aware of our mental health and triggers, we can develop a plan of action. The action plan should be specific, measurable, and attainable or realistic. It needs to have specific details, timelines, and be re-evaluated daily, weekly and monthly. Actions can be things like exercising, implementing better sleep routines, making time for self-care, reducing time spent on social media, consulting with a health care professional to adjust or start medications, calling a therapist, adding more activities to your day, or reducing activities in your daily/weekly schedule. In cases where you are feeling unsafe for yourself or other people it is very important that you reach out to a health care professional immediately or go to the hospital, this should be a part of your action plan too. We all usually have some idea of what works well for us when we are feeling our mental health take a toll on us. Use whatever resources you have available to you and be creative. Here is an example of an action plan: “In November to April (during the winter months), when I usually start to feel depressed and isolated, I will go for a walk or run three times per week. I will join a wellness group during these months to help me stay connected to other people. I will ensure that I am doing things I enjoy for self-care every day. If I start to feel overwhelmed (my thoughts are negative, I feel stressed, I start to feel hopeless) I will reach out to a healthcare professional or therapist. I will re-evaluate how things are going weekly.” Step 3: Accountability The final step in developing a mental health plan is sharing the plan with someone you trust. You need to choose someone who is willing to check in with you regularly to evaluate your mental health and overall wellbeing. This person should be someone you consider close to you, that will not judge you, and who you know you will listen to. During times of wellness they may check in with you infrequently. In times of difficulty, or in periods of time that you historically have a change in your mental health (anniversary, specific time of year etc.), they may check in with you daily or weekly to ensure you are following the action plan. In Proverbs 15:22, the Bible tells us to “seek counsel in our plans”. Adding an accountability person into your mental health plan helps ensure you will implement the plan when it’s needed and helps us to feel supported. Bringing it All Together To recap, remember the “3 A’s” when developing your mental health plan; Awareness, Action, and Accountability. In my experience including God in your plans is the most important thing you can do. He makes everything better. He’s there for us in our mess just like He’s there for us in our times of Joy. He wants to be included in your life. So let Him in! Don’t just rely on your own strength. The Bible says we will be blessed for trusting in the Lord: But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8 I hope that you have found this blog to be informative and applicable to your life wherever you are at right now. And if you still have no idea where to start or even the thought of trying to come up with a plan is overwhelming for you, please reach out to a mental health professional as they will be able to help you get started. The information shared today is from my experience as a registered nurse and is not to be taken as medical advice. As with previous blogs I have written for Agora, please consult with your health care professional before making any changes related to your health.

Lorr's Hope in Depression

I didn’t know what was wrong. For several days following my 16th birthday, I had been weak and tired. Then one morning, I didn’t even have the strength to get out of bed. After a couple days of sleeping around the clock, I was taken to the doctor and I got my blood taken. I waited the recommended amount of time in the office then walked to the car. I was mostly inside the vehicle before I promptly fainted. When the blood test came back normal, I received my diagnosis: depression. I had always thought that depression meant sadness, but I didn’t feel that sad. In fact, I felt that I was in a better, safer place than I had been in years. There was pain though, a trauma that had just occurred and a build up from childhood abuse, and that internal pain took a toll on my body. It took weeks to recover from that season of depression and even though there were many days I wanted to return to school, I simply lacked the strength. I cycled through bouts of depression for many years after that first episode. Though less severe than the first one, it was common that I was depressed to the point of being bedridden for a few days in late fall and then again in late winter. This continued until after my pregnancy in 2000 when the postpartum set in and then it didn’t end. After a year of postpartum depression, the medical team that was helping me recommended hospitalization and so I went. The hospital was a good experience for me. It was there that my hope was renewed for the first time in a long time. I met other depressed people, and one in particular suffering with identity loss due to job loss who felt she had lost all her value and purpose in life. Her situation understandably looked truly hopeless. But, God used her story as a wake-up call that reminded me that my true identity was in Christ, as a child of God, and that God still had a purpose for my life despite the fact that I royally messed up. In the hospital, I was also given medication that helped my thinking become clearer, but even before the meds began to take effect, my hope was being restored. I left the hospital with a new diagnosis, Bipolar II rapid cycling, and a new medication, Lithium, to control the mood swings. I took the medication for about a year and then through a misunderstanding about the blood tests needed for these meds, I accidentally ended up in withdrawal. After prayer, I decided not to renew the medication unless the Lord made it clear to do so. I went for over a decade without a major depressive episode, thanks to God and thanks to his work of being discipled; a process that helped me in my everyday walk with God to draw near to him and remind me of my hope in him. In 2014, I had a very noticeable swing from 3 days of being hypomanic and then an immediate drop to deep depression. The descent into the pit was quite shocking because it was like someone just flipped a switch and then the ground opened up and swallowed me. Over the next month, I fluctuated between low-grade and deep depression, but I did seek to stay very near to God. Though it was difficult to concentrate, I tried to read my Bible regularly, even if it was a very short passage and pray, especially during my lower times. On one night during that month, I went to bed moderately depressed, and then awoke a couple of hours later to discover I had slipped deep down in the pit. Since it was early morning, I decided to get up for some water to help me feel better, but by the time I arrived in the kitchen, I couldn’t recall where the glasses were and I couldn’t figure out how to search for them. The confusion was great and I quickly moved into despair. I couldn’t pray because I couldn’t even form words in my head, so I just crumpled to the floor in a brain fog. I don’t know how long I was there for, but at some point Psalm 13 was suddenly in my head in perfect NIV. I hadn’t memorized it but I had heard it earlier that week at a school chapel. This lament psalm says, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? Give light to my eyes or I will sleep in death.” When I recited the last line I really meant it. I was going to die like this if God didn’t do something to lift me out of the pit. Thankfully, God heard my prayer, the lament he must have put in my mind, and I got up off the floor. Though I was still in a low-grade depression, it felt very good after where I’d been. I was overflowing with joy and hope even in the midst of depression because God himself had miraculously reached inside of my head and helped me. There have been many other times, though perhaps less dramatic, that God has reached down to me in times of depression. Another time, he used the words of Psalm 23, to remind me that “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death that he is with me and that his rod and his staff, they comfort me.” It was the truth that I needed to give me hope that God doesn’t expect that I will never become depressed but that he walks through the depression with me and comforts me. God has graciously walked with me through a recent season of depression that lasted about 4½ months. Although, I am definitely headed to a psychiatrist to look into my mental health and determine if it is time to reconsider medication, God certainly used this time to reveal his love and care more clearly to me. By his grace, although I went into the pit, I never felt hopeless. He carried me through one day at a time and actually made me more hopeful of the day when I will see him face to face and there will be no more sadness, no more pain, no more depression.

Faith, Hope, and Love Through a Pandemic

by Rebecca Hicks, BScN, RN I am writing to you today with a very heavy heart.  I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the last few weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster.  I have found myself crying while watching the news, tearing up while seeing pictures and videos of my fellow nurses, doctors and allied health care workers provide war-like-effort care to the critically ill around the world, grieving for families who have lost their loved ones, fearfully stressing about keeping my family safe, worrying about what our future holds. By now, we are all aware what the COVID-19 virus is capable of doing to our physical health, healthcare systems and the economy, but what is it doing to our mental health? Fear. Anxiety. Sadness. Grief. All of these emotions and thoughts are normal during a crisis like the one we find ourselves in today.  There are new fears and anxieties; fear of getting the virus or passing it on to our loved ones, fear of going out of the house, stress of losing our employment (if you already haven’t lost it), fear of not having enough of the things we need to survive, fear of losing people we love, fear of what is to come. And in the age of information that we are in, we are bombarded with information about this pandemic multiple times per day.  Information that causes more stress. More thinking. More fear. Now don’t get me wrong, information is very important. We need to be informed about what is going on. Our government, healthcare teams and researchers have been working very hard to educate us about how to keep ourselves and other people safe. This is important! Checking your phone 100 times per day to see how many cases of COVID-19 are in your community? Probably doing more harm than good…am I right? There are new feelings of sadness and grief; loss of the things you enjoy doing, not being able to see your loved ones, loss of freedom, loss of routines, loneliness, grieving for those who are dying, grieving for our broken world.  It’s depressing. It can feel hopeless. Life is out of control...but were we ever really in control to begin with? Was there ever really any guarantees? When faced with these new realities it’s common to question our purpose, the meaning of life, and to wonder who is really in control? So how do we navigate all these feelings and emotions? Faith, Hope and Love. Faith If there is any time to believe in something, now is the time.  I believe in a God who is faithful in every circumstance. He created this world; He created YOU.  He knows how you are feeling. He knows what you are going through. He knows what is to come. If you’ve had questions about God that’s ok.  I’ve been a Christian almost my whole life and STILL have questions and doubts. There are days I believe beyond a shadow of doubt, there are other days I doubt everything!  God will not abandon you. Even Jesus’ disciples (another word for people who followed around Jesus during his ministry) doubted Him and they got to see miracles performed in front of their very eyes.  And yet Jesus still loved them, had compassion on them, and used them in his ministry even after His death. We all believe in something. Even those who say they don’t believe in God still believe in other things (science, morals, success, themselves).  Can I challenge you to take another look at Jesus Christ? He is a real person who existed a few thousand years ago. Even atheists will agree that he walked the earth. There is so much historical evidence to prove His existence, but please check it out for yourself.  I highly recommend watching the video in this link: ; specifically the second video “Who is Jesus?” about 7 minutes in and onward. Nicky Gumbel, who is a British lawyer, does a beautiful job of explaining the historical evidence of Jesus in these Alpha video series, and also explains how he came to the realization that God is real and he needs Him in his life.  I encourage you to use some of this “extra” time we have staying at home to check out these videos. They could change your life. “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see…And it is impossible to please God without faith.  Anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that God exists and that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him.” Hebrews 11:1, 6. Hope I think we will all agree that Hope is very important in life and in adversity.  Hope can be the lead factor in survival. Fyodor DostoevskyIf says it like this “To live without hope is to cease to live”.  We need to have hope, trust, and respect for our leaders during this time. Even if you did not vote for them, even if you don’t agree with all of what they stand for, or don’t like how they are currently handling this situation.  Romans 13:1 says it like this “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.” Let’s pray for those who are leading our country through this pandemic.  Pray that God would give the wisdom to know what to do. Pray that God would give them a sound mind, free from fear. We need to trust in our communities to provide the things we need and hope that others will heed to the instructions our governing bodies have given to help us.  We need to trust in God, that he will see us through these times. Even if it gets worse before it gets better. “I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in Him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Romans 15:13 Love Love is the key to overcoming this pandemic.  “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”  1 Corinthians 13:7. By listening to the government’s recommendations of staying home or socially distancing yourself, you are showing love to those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 such as the elderly and immunocompromised.  Listening to these recommendations will save lives. This is love. By calling your grandparents, family, and friends to “check-up” on them and encourage them, this is love. By dropping off groceries or other needed supplies to your neighbours you are showing love and helping reduce transmission of the virus.  By donating some of your extra toilet paper, canned goods, and cleaning supplies to your local social service organization you are showing love to those in our community who don’t have enough food to feed their family. By donating to global non-profit organizations online you are showing love to those who do not have access to free healthcare or resources like EI during this time. This is love. “Love is patient and kind.  Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude.  It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.  It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Love is action.  Let’s all do our part. Conclusion My dad said something to me this week that has really stuck with me and I want to share with you. He said, “In life we often go through things alone, when we lose a job, or lose a loved one, or are feeling depressed, as most people aren’t also going through those same emotions at the same time.  But this is a time in history where we are all in the same boat. We all know what each other are feeling because we all are going through similar challenges. We are all facing uncertain times. “ For me, it provided some comfort, knowing that we are all in this together. I pray that God will become real to you during this time of uncertainty.  I pray for good health and safety for you and your family, and our world. “Three things will last forever- faith, hope, and love- and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 For additional reading, check out Psalms 91.  This has provided much comfort to me during these past few days.  If you don’t have a Bible, simply google Psalms 91 and you can read it from your computer screen, or download the free Bible app (YouVersion).

Mental Health Medications and Stigma

by Rebecca Hicks, RN Either you’ve experienced it yourself or know someone who has… The moment where the doctor tells you that they are going to prescribe something for you to help you cope with your emotions, to cope with your racing or depressive thoughts, to help you cope with your past, to regulate your sleep, or to stop the voices. Something to take the “edge off”. For some people, they’ll easily take whatever the doctor prescribes, for others they say “no thank you, I can fix this myself.” But there is a lot to consider when taking medications and unfortunately a stigma that comes with taking medications for mental health reasons. Today’s blog will explore the stigma and why it exists. I’ll also touch on when to use medications and some tips for advocating for yourself or others (if you are a caregiver or support person). The information shared today is from my experience as a registered nurse and is not to be taken as medical advice. As with previous blogs I have written for AGORA, please consult with your health care professional before making any changes to medications. In my experience, there are many reasons why people have stigmas, attitudes, beliefs, or judgement towards psychotropic medications. Many people who struggle with mental distress (of any kind) are often ashamed or embarrassed of their symptoms. They often feel that they must have done something to bring on the symptoms or something has happened in their past that they don’t want others to know about. They may be fearful of what others will think if they are taking medications to treat depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, insomnia, etc. There may be fears that medications won’t work, or that medications will make them feel nothing at all. There are often (real) fears about side effects. For some people they feel that taking medications is a sign of weakness; that they should be able to cope with how they are feeling on their own. Unfortunately, some Christian’s also live in fear that other believers will find out they are taking medications and cast judgement on them stating that they lack faith or should get better by just trusting in God. For other’s they may be in denial that there is an issue; their close family members and friends may see that they are struggling but they feel that they can “handle it on their own”. Another fear that many people have is if they start on a medication, that they will be “stuck on it” for the rest of their life. These are just some of the reasons why there is so much judgement and hesitation in taking medications to treat mental illness. Despite the fears that we explored above, medications can be a great tool in helping people cope with their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. I use the word “tool” because just like a carpenter has many tools to build a house, medications are one tool that when used with other tools can help rebuild someone’s life. What I mean by this is that you can’t expect medication to fix all of your problems. There just isn’t a pill for that. But medications can be a tool to help get your brain in the right sequence so that you can do other things that you enjoy and it will help align your mind and body to work the way it’s intended to work. Medications work best in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle. It is important to exercise, have a nutritious diet, get enough sleep, refrain from using substances (there will be an entire blog related to this topic- stay tuned!), and to find meaningful activities that give you purpose and a sense of ac com plishment. A question I am often asked is “when should medications be considered?” Some of the most common reasons are the following: when your regular (healthy) ways of coping with stress aren’t working when your sleep is affected when your quality of life is affected when you struggle to function in your regular activities if you are feeling hopeless and/or having suicidal thoughts (I would strongly suggest getting help before suicidal ideation occurs but it’s not too late if suicidal thoughts occur before medication is started) Now that we’ve explored when to use medications, I will provide some general tips on how medications should be used. Perhaps this is an obvious point, but in case some readers aren’t sure where to get medications, family doctors, psychiatrists, and nurse practitioners can prescribe psychotropic medications. Medications can also be prescribed at a hospital (usually either in the emergency department or on an acute psychiatric unit) but follow up will be needed afterwards. It is important to keep in mind that the first medication you are introduced to may not work; it may take a few different trials of medications. Also, most medications do not work instantly. It usually takes weeks and in many cases months, to see the full effect of the medication (this can be very frustrating for people when they are struggling). It can be helpful to let your practitioner know what medications worked well for you in the past and which medications did not work well. It can also be helpful to know what medications your family members are taking for mental health (if you have a close family member on medications) as it is known that sometimes what works well for one family member will work well for another (genetics come into play). Advocate for yourself, or have someone you trust go with you to your appointment and help advocate for you. Don’t be afraid to take notes (it’s helpful to keep a timeline of your emotions, sleep patterns, etc.) and tell your practitioner exactly how you are feeling. Ask about side effects. If you are having too many unwanted side effects, ask your practitioner if it is possible to titrate the medication slowly; meaning start at a low dose and increase it slowly over a longer period of time. Everybody is different, so what works for one person may not work for another. For some people multiple medications need to be used. But again, don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself and tell your practitioner what is working and what is not working. Often time’s people will give up after one short trial of medications because it didn’t seem to work. Give it a chance, and work with your practitioner in finding a medication that helps you. If you had a broken arm you’d go to the hospital to have it reset. If you had high blood pressure and wasn’t able to manage it with exercise and diet you’d take an antihypertensive medication. It’s no different for our mental health (except that our brain controls the entire body and our emotions and if it’s not doing well, how can we expect to be doing well?) Rant over. Now let’s change the stigma! Here are seven ways we can reduce stigma as outline by the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health: Know the facts. Educate yourself about mental illness including substance use disorders. Be aware of your attitudes and behaviour. Examine your own judgmental thinking, reinforced by upbringing and society. Choose your words carefully. The way we speak can affect the attitudes of others. Educate others. Pass on facts and positive attitudes; challenge myths and stereotypes. Focus on the positive. Mental illness, including addictions, are only part of anyone's larger picture. Support people. Treat everyone with dignity and respect; offer support and encouragement. Include everyone. It's against the law to deny jobs or services to anyone with these health issues. I’ll conclude by sharing these verses found in Matthew 5;1-10. I hope these words Jesus shared 2000+ years ago encourage you today. 1One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, 2and he began to teach them. 3“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. 4God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole e arth. 6God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. 7God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. 9God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. 10God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”

AGORA Network Ministries encourages individuals to seek mental health and medical professional care for any ongoing personal challenges.

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