Graduation season is a wonderful time of celebration: endings and new beginnings, sadness mixed with joy. Except that’s not the case for everyone. I know about this firsthand.
Several years ago, about ten months before my son was diagnosed with autism, we came to the end of his incredibly difficult senior year. We were eager to move on, not only to a new chapter in our son’s life, but also to have him evaluated by several medical professionals, to get to the bottom of his struggles. He had a handful of appointments scheduled for months in advance within the first two weeks after graduation.
We didn’t anticipate the year ending the way that it did. And there was no reason for it to end so badly. Except that my God is a god of purpose, and He was searing into me His calling to mental health ministry, a place where I had already toiled—as a person who could get the nuts and bolts of ministry done, but also someone who spoke from my own mental health experiences and mental health issues in family and friends. And I believe God was teaching my son about our love for him, and God’s love for him, that it was completely distinct from anything the world could throw at him.
My son had a meeting with the school president. Each graduating senior was able to spend fifteen minutes with this chief authority figure at the religious school, to share their dreams, plans and hopes for the future. During my son’s time, the president talked with him for a minute or two about some ideas the school had for additional work my son could do, related to the most recent—and I might add, unwarranted, unnecessary and initiated by the school—conflict.
Undiagnosed autism can ruin lives. There’s a reason the suicide rate is nine times greater for individuals with high functioning autism than their peer group. Individuals with high functioning autism struggle to express themselves and understand communication from others. I’d been worried about my son being suicidal off and on for the previous couple of years, because of things he had said and done. His fear, anxiety and depression in the school environment was obvious, to anyone who was looking.
For most of the remainder of the fifteen minutes of my son’s time, the president was on the phone, buying a plane ticket for his daughter. My son wasn’t worth listening to for ten to fifteen minutes.
To be treated this way is the definition of disdain.
Church, what do you think people think of Jesus when you treat them like this behind closed doors? Church, what do you think happens to a teenager when one of the main authority figures in his life lets him know in no uncertain terms, without words, that he doesn’t matter to your church environment? Or your school environment?
You know the answer to my question: it’s in the news every day. The suicide epidemic, drug use and abuse, kids from your neighborhood going completely off the rails, even in ‘good’ families. God had called me to ministry years earlier, and I gave up a financially lucrative career to do so. Having my kids love God and grow up to be people with a heart for Him was our most important goal from the moment we knew we were going to be parents.
We had invested our entire lives into the education and Christian character of our children. Even though some people in our lives were quick to accuse us of poor parenting, we knew we could hardly do more than we had done, pouring in when we needed to and letting go when that needed to be done. We spent ourselves to train up our children in the way they should go.
So what do you think happens when a child exhibits behavior that looks a certain way, but is really another thing entirely? What do you think happens when those behaviors are rooted in a misdiagnosis or undiagnosed mental health condition, when that child doesn’t have the whole-hearted support that my husband and I provided our kids?
You know the answer to that too. They don’t walk away from church, they run at the first chance they get!
Church, we can do better than this. Ministry leads to hard places, but all things are possible with Christ. It doesn’t take advanced medical degrees to befriend the person who sits alone in your youth group or in Sunday morning services.
For the record, forgiveness of the wounds inflicted upon my children by ‘Christians’ has been the hardest thing for me to overcome. But I’m grateful that in addition to every other way that He knows how hard it is to be human, my Father knows the pain of this kind of terrible wounding.
My Father forgives, and I have as well. Honestly, I don’t want relationship with any of the people who were involved, unless they are willing to apologize. But I write here because God has called me, and everyone who bears the name of Christ, to speak the truth in love. I work in the overlapping world of mental health and ministry because I want the world to know the incredible grace God offers us all, but also the incredible responsibility to love others with both truth and grace, even when we don’t understand what we’re seeing. The body count of ruined lives is far too high for the Church to continue getting this wrong.
Catherine Boyle is the Director of Mental Health Ministry for Key Ministry.