Decembers Topic - Mental Health
Mental Health. It’s an issue we hear about often. On the one hand this is good, as people need to know that when we’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or some other psychological condition it’s important to get help, just like we’d get help for pneumonia or diabetes. But it’s sad as well, because many people, including teens and young adults, suffer from various conditions which negatively affect them and those around them.
Depression, for example, has reached epidemic proportions in our society. It’s the single greatest cause of absenteeism at work or school. It’s virtually certain that you or someone you know - someone in your family, a friend, a fellow student or co-worker – is suffering from depression at this very moment. By depression we don’t mean just feeling down, sad, or tired. Everyone has these feelings from time to time, it’s a natural part of life. I’m talking about a medical condition called clinical depression.
Anxiety, as well, is rampant. The difference between fear and anxiety is that fear has a definite object – when I’m in the same room with a tiger, I fear the tiger. Anxiety is generalized fear without a particular object: “What if. . .?” “What will they think. . .?” “He might . . ., she might . . ., I might. . .,” etc.
Eating disorders are also common, especially among women. They are extremely dangerous, and have the highest mortality rate among all psychological illnesses.
If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or is contemplating suicide, it’s important to talk about it. Everyone needs a “go-to adult,” an aunt or uncle, teacher, coach or priest who they trust completely, and with whom they can talk openly. Don’t be afraid to see (or encourage them to see) a doctor, and try to see a psychiatrist as soon as possible, as the psychiatrist will have more experience and available resources to deal with the situation.
Both the medical literature as well as pastoral experience confirm that religious faith and practice are very helpful in dealing with mental illness. Being connected to the Church both spiritually and socially helps protect us from psychological problems in the first place, and helps us overcome them more quickly if they do appear. Prayer, worship, and participation in the sacramental life of the Church have a very positive effect on our inward, psychological state if we let them.
What causes mental illness? There is no simple answer. It might be hereditary, but usually results from a combination of biological, psychological, and social elements. Traumatic events, like the death of someone we dearly love or breaking up with a girlfriend/boyfriend, divorce, losing our job, etc. can result in depression. Other factors which can contribute to mental illness include single motherhood, not completing high school, being bullied, living off social assistance, living alone, smoking, the use of drugs, and heavy drinking. People who have suffered mental, physical or sexual abuse are also prone to higher levels of mental illness.
On the other hand there are behaviours and activities which foster good mental health. Remaining chaste (i.e., not engaging in pre-marital sexual activity), not using drugs, not abusing alcohol, doing well in school, having healthy friendships, good family relationships, and being active physically are all beneficial. As already mentioned, religious faith and practice also have a positive effect in lowering our chances of becoming mentally unwell, as well as helping us overcome mental illness if it does strike.
God has given us medical knowledge, He has given us spiritual knowledge, and He has given us love – His love, as well as the love of good friends and family. By humbly accepting and making use of all these gifts we can help prevent the appearance of mental illness in our lives and the lives of those we love, and more quickly overcome it if it does appear.
Notes from a Campground...
July 25, 2017
Every summer the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA sponsors a camping program for teenagers called “Teenage Conference” at All Saints camp in Emlenton, Pennsylvania. I’ve been blessed to take part in the program for many years, teaching religion, singing, and Ukrainian culture. It’s an exceptional program, bringing great spiritual benefit to everyone involved. (see photos!)
The program is centred on God and His Church. Days begin and end with common prayer in the beautiful Carpathian-style wooden church. Meals likewise begin and end with prayer. Liturgy is served on Sundays and feast days, with other services such as Vespers, Akathists, and Molebens offered at appropriate times. These services are very uplifting, as the teenagers sing the services themselves, and sing them well.
Every day the campers gather for a question and answer session with the priests. All the difficult issues which impact our youth – issues of morality, sexuality, spirituality, Christian living, etc. – are addressed. I always return home thinking that if our adult parishioners or council members were as eager to openly wrestle with the teachings of our church as these teenagers are our parishes would be hothouses of Christian faith and practice!
The encampment also features sports, culture, music, and social activities. Every year the campers are divided into teams of 8 – 10 and participate in the “Ukie Olympics”, which features events like running, throwing, basketball, volleyball, etc. The team accumulating the most points over the two week encampment wins the coveted “Kozak Cup”. Besides organized sports campers have time every day for free sports like swimming, soccer, basketball, tennis - you name it, the camp has facilities for it.
Singing is very popular. It’s amazing to have 50 or 60 teenagers singing both popular and folk songs in either Ukrainian or English joyfully and at the top of their lungs. The camp is located on the banks of the Allegheny river, and it’s traditional to go down and sing by the riverside on the grass at least once during the encampment.
Every year the campers explore various aspects of Ukrainian culture, including Christmas, New-year, Theophany, and wedding customs. In the past whole encampments have been dedicated to one or another of these themes, including full blown celebrations of Christmas Eve (with the Holy Supper and caroling for the neighbours who have cottages down the road from the camp), and a complete Ukrainian wedding, including a banquet and dance!
Another wonderful program is called “TC Gives Back.” Each week the campers take an afternoon and do various chores around the camp, maintaining and beautifying the grounds, cleaning the buildings, etc.
Camp is a unique opportunity to bond with other Ukrainian Orthodox teenagers from parishes throughout the USA and Canada. Every evening there is a dance, a bon-fire, or some other type of social event where the youth have an opportunity to interact. The friendships made at camp last for life.
The campers are mostly Ukrainian Orthodox, but with a significant minority who are not Ukrainian, not Orthodox, or neither. Recently we have seen more and more youth who are recent immigrants to the USA and Canada participating in the camping programs, which has been a great blessing, as they are helped by their peers to acculturate to their new homelands, while the children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren of our parish and church pioneers who have grown up here have the opportunity to meet and interact with their brothers and sisters who grew up in Ukraine.
Each year the camp program features a spiritual theme. This year’s theme was “Champions of the Faith”. Campers were presented with examples – both historic and contemporary – of people who were strong in their faith, dedicated to the Church, and lived sacrificial, Christ-like lives. The message was that all of us are called to be champions for our faith in a world which is often anti-Christian.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA sponsors missionary trips for young adults to Ukraine, and for high school students in the USA and Canada. Campers who had taken part in these mission trips gave very moving presentations about their trips to help out at Church sponsored orphanages in Ukraine as well as Orthodox missions in the USA and Canada.
The success of any endeavour depends primarily upon the people involved. Natalie Kapeluck, Director of youth ministry for the UOC of the USA, does a phenomenal job as camp director. Fr. John Harvey has been the beloved spiritual director for over 35 years. The counselors and camp staff are mostly young adults who have gone through the camp program themselves and return year after year.
A high point of every encampment is the visit of the bishops. When they attend (and they make a point of attending each encampment every year) they hold a question and answer session which is always interesting and uplifting for everyone.
Behind the Scenes
All Saints Camp was purchased by the Ukrainian Orthodox League, the lay organization of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. The cooperation and mutual support of both the Church and the UOL is wonderful to see. The success of the camping programs are ultimately due to the spirit of mutual respect and support which exist between and among the clergy, lay leaders, episcopate, Church, and UOL. It’s an example of how the “sacred” and the “secular” meld into a unified whole which is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Four camping programs are offered: St. Nicholas (for developmentally delayed children with parents), Diocesan Church School Camp for children aged 7 – 12, Teenage Conference for those aged 13 – 18, and Mommy & Me/Daddy & Me for parents with toddlers 4 – 6 years old. If you’re interested information about these encampments can be accessed through the web-site of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, www.uocofusa.org.
Participating in Teenage Conference is one of the highlights of my year. If you’re not participating in one of the Church Camps here in Canada next summer (or even if you are) think about attending TC (if you’re 13 – 18) or helping out as a counselor (if you’re 19 or older) at All Saints Camp in Pennsylvania. You won’t be disappointed.
Bored, Distracted, and Manipulated.
June 28, 2017
Time + Nothing to do = Boredom.
How many times I’ve heard young (and not-so-young) people say “I’m bored!” And how many times I’ve wondered, “in a world with so many possibilities and opportunities, how can anyone be bored?”
People sometimes try to relieve their boredom by distraction. Many are “Distracted from distraction by distractions,” in other words, they try to occupy their mind or do something, anything, simply to alleviate their boredom. This might mean playing computer games, getting drunk, gambling, using drugs, “sexting,” looking at pornography, engaging in sexual relations, watching television shows or movies, spending endless hours on social media, surfing the net, etc.
The sad part of all this is that when people feel the need to be distracted from their “normal” life it means that they regard their lives as meaningless, of little or no value, even as an unbearable burden.
People who live distracted lives are easily manipulated. Whether it be television, movies, the internet, or the marketing/advertising industry in general (what does a commercial or an advertisement do, after all, except to tell us what we need, why we need it, and where to buy it?) people are constantly trying to manipulate us for their own benefit, often using sex, violence, greed, shame, desire, etc. as “the hook.”
Schools and government manipulate us as well. How much of education, rather than imparting knowledge and wisdom to coming generations, actually consists of indoctrination? How much government activity is aimed not at serving the greater good of society as a whole, but simply at being re-elected?
Worst of all is the spiritual manipulation we see everywhere. Why is it that whenever peace and “spirituality” are portrayed in popular culture it is not with the image of a cross, but of someone in the “lotus” position? The fact that faith is excluded from public schools says implicitly “faith has no place here,” but the faith which is almost universally excluded is clearly Christianity. Yoga is taught in our schools. Muslims have prayer rooms (and good for the Muslims. They ask, and they receive. We Christians don’t even ask. Shame on us!). Various Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish festivals are celebrated, but in many places it’s forbidden to have a “Christmas” concert, because, well, it’s Christian.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter. What is the problem?
It always comes back to each one of us personally. Boredom, like many other spiritual diseases (and yes, boredom is first and foremost a spiritual illness), is often the result of unhealthy self-centredness, narcissism, an unreasonable feeling of entitlement, or laziness.
So what is the solution? Christ and the Gospel. What is the greatest commandment? To love God with our whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s “other-centredness,” giving first place to God and neighbor. It’s in coming to know Christ, which we do in prayer, worship, fasting, ministry to others, and reading the scriptures. It’s in following the “golden rule,” treating others like we’d want to be treated, and serving the needs of others (Jesus tells us that in feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, visiting the sick, we are ministering to Him). It most certainly is not in using, abusing, or manipulating other people.
Other things help as well. If we don’t already do so we need to unplug ourselves from our electronic devices. We should have specific times of day or days of the week when we are “off-line” (in our day and age fasting from the internet and smart phone is probably a lot more important - and more difficult - than fasting from food!). We should never use an electronic device to read, see, or hear anything that would make us uncomfortable if Jesus were right next to us (which, by the way, He is. Always.). Nor is there any good reason to get drunk, gamble, look at pornography, have marital relations with someone you’re not married to, or get high on drugs.
Boredom can be dangerous. It can lead to behaviours which become addictions, and contribute to anxiety, depression, or worse. And believe me, you don’t want to be anxious, addicted, or depressed.
Your life has meaning. Eternal meaning. Know Christ, and you will know this. God has given you unique talents, gifts, intelligence, knowledge and experience. Take them, and use them unto God’s glory, for the benefit and edification of your family, friends, schoolmates, parish, community, and the world around you. Do this, and your life will be full of joy and delight.
And you won’t have time to be bored!
Finding Our Place
May 29, 2017
The contemporary world can be a complicated and intimidating place. Besides the technological complexity of our society there is a social and moral complexity which is even more overwhelming.
Growing up in such a world it’s easy to lose one’s way, and there’s always a tendency to just “go with the flow”. But it’s always been necessary for true Christians to be knowledgeable about their faith and dedicated to the Church.
Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) once said that whenever he speaks with the youth of his parish in Oxford he reminds them that in our contemporary world, if they want to remain Orthodox Christians, they need to be prepared to be like a salmon, swimming constantly against the current. It’s not impossible for young people, even university students, to remain committed, believing Orthodox Christians, but it’s definitely a countercultural act, and those who wish to remain with the Church will have to be prepared to deal in a sound intellectual, spiritual and loving manner with the questions, derision, and outright aggression which they will certainly face.
Due to the emphasis “the world” puts on career success and “personal fulfillment” most of our teens and young adults, even those who are close to the Church, find themselves in a constant tug of war among many activities - sports, music lessons, dance classes, school work, part-time jobs, social activities, etc. Notice we haven’t even mentioned worship services, parish youth group activities, or prayer! Based on my observation, Christ and the Church usually seem to find themselves at the bottom of the priority list. This is both sad and unfortunate, because it’s precisely at the beginning of the teen years and continuing through the early twenties that as human beings we are able to start philosophically engaging the deeper realities of life, the world, and the Christian faith.
While we’re blessed to live in an age of rapid technological advancement, we’re at the same time witnessing a frightening drop in the level of spiritual knowledge. This is dangerous for society, as economic or scientific progress which is not tempered by wisdom and Christian love is often catastrophic.
In addition to the above, it takes people longer to grow up nowadays. Fifty or a hundred years ago people usually got married in their late teens or early twenties (how many people do you know who at 25 years of age have a job, a mortgage, and three children??). The spiritual, psychological and practical lessons that were learned by our grandparents simply by virtue of going to Church every Sunday, having a spouse and children to look after, and taking an active part in the ongoing life of the community are not being learned, or learned late in life, by a large segment of our population today, to the detriment of society, the Church, and individual people.
The goal of these reflections is to help you contextualize a lot of the information you have received through the mass media, school, or Church, relating to matters like honour and honesty; relationship issues (friendship, dating, courting, marriage); sexual morality; addiction issues (alcohol, internet, drugs, gambling); family issues (relationship with parents, siblings, etc.); relationship to Church; theological issues (Who is Jesus Christ? The bodily resurrection and the resurrection of Christ. What about non-Christians or non-Orthodox?); personal spirituality (prayer, fasting, worship, service), etc.
Please feel free to forward any topics or questions you might have and I’ll do my best to respond in upcoming issues of the newsletter.
May He bless and keep all of you!
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Please feel free to forward any topics or questions you might have and I’ll do my best to respond in upcoming issues of the newsletter.
- Fr. Bohdan Hladio