I am a Unitarian Universalist who has struggled with depression for several years.
To mark Mental Health Awareness Month this May, I reached out to three fellow religious educators and good friends of mine—Erin Kenworthy in Denver, Cameron Young in Fort Worth, and Jessica Laike in Colorado Springs—to hear how their histories of mental health struggles inform their work. All three have big laughs, lots of energy, powerful mentoring skills, and intense past difficulties that now motivate them to do faith-based formation and support.
A few months after the birth of her son Owen in 2012, Erin Kenworthy found herself slipping “almost imperceptibly” into postpartum depression and anxiety. Stigma and shame made her struggles feel even worse. “Other people have multiple kids and do just fine, so I should be able to handle this.” Two UU friends in Denver took note as her struggles worsened, culminating in a night of tears and feelings of inadequacy in early November 2012.
Erin, who now works as the faith formation and religious education program coordinator for First Universalist Church of Denver, credits her UU friends and a Lakewood, Colorado, support group with helping her through. “They gave hugs, asked questions, and didn't chastise me for losing it the night before.” She got better through medical, emotional, and spiritual support.
Cameron Young’s long “Jesus hair” and his stunning, classically-trained singing voice make him exceedingly memorable. As with Kenworthy, it’s amazing to see him in action, interacting with youth by making jokes, checking in, and listening intently. The director of lifespan religious education Westside UU Church in Fort Worth, Texas, Cameron works hard for young people because, toward the end of his college career at LSU, depression and anxiety found him and later intensified.
“Being able to be there for them, to learn their stories—that’s what this work is for me,” he said.
Cameron and I spoke via Skype earlier this month; seeing him talk openly about times of suicidal thoughts and deep despair in a coffee shop, where others could hear him, inspired me and brought home the words he spoke about overcoming shame about mental health difficulties. “I’ll gladly talk about it. Depression is way too hard without also thinking you’re alone. I want kids and youth to know it’s okay, even good sometimes, to struggle.”
Jessica Laike, who’s well-known among Colorado UUs for her booming laugh and ability to get to know any and every youth, also relayed the importance of learning others are with you in the struggle. A Southwest District YRUU alum like Cameron and me, Jessica remembers fellow high school youth carrying her—sometimes literally—into the knowledge that she was loved. She works now to get her high school youth group to realize and recognize that they have support. “Youth have said to me, ‘I thought I was completely alone, but I see now that I’m not.’”
The three religious educators see it as their job, and every UU’s job, to lift others up. Erin believes being brave enough to ask questions—of others, and ourselves—is vital to a supportive faith community. “I try to ask [if someone seems like they’re struggling], ‘How can I support you?’ My job isn’t to diagnose. It’s to nurture people and to care.”