Stephen Lehmann Speaks Out on Mental Health Awareness

When Heidi asked me to speak to the congregation about what mental health means to me, I struggled to narrow my thoughts down to a message that could be covered in this brief amount of time.

For a little background on my own struggles with mental health, I have had a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety disorder. In my early childhood, I assumed everyone was like me, and that things simply were what they were. My senior year in high school, I had a fantastic teacher who passed along a great motto from one of the world’s great thinkers, Socrates. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Anyone who has struggled with mental health can tell you, your internal voice, or self-talk, can be either motivating or debilitating. When I first realized that my mental health was in my own hands, not dependent on anyone else’s image of me, I made a concerted effort to examine my own life, my own self talk, and make sure that I was setting myself up for success, rather than predetermining my personal failure. This was my first step towards better mental health.

The next step I took to address my issues, I was in my mid-20’s. I had just opened my business with Karyn, and was struggling with the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with risking your life savings and personal reputation in the extremely pubic forum of a retail venture. Everyone who opens a business thinks they have a great idea. Sadly, half of them do not, as evidenced by the 50% failure rate of start up businesses. Despite my attempts, I was not able to control my inner voice, and my struggle manifested itself in tremendous stress and expressions of inappropriate rage. I can remember a particular incident when Karyn lost a postage stamp for a bill, and to put it mildly, I flipped out.

As is often the case, it was the love of a very good woman that pushed me towards what was best for myself. On Karyn’s prompting, I made an appointment with my doctor and said those words that seem contrary to our human nature, “I need help.” With some trial and error, we settled on an appropriate course of medication. No medication is a cure for mental illness, but what medication provided me was the ability to regulate my inner voice, my self-talk, and regain a positive tone to my inner dialogue. To contrast my earlier story about losing it over a missing postage stamp, the following year, Karyn and I misplaced our tax return on April 15th. For many, this would be an anxiety-producing situation. As a medicated person, I was able to deal with the situation appropriately. I simply picked up the phone and called my accountant, asking him to reprint our return, and picked it up on the way to the Post Office. What a difference a year’s time and different brain chemistry can make.

This gets to the crux of the matter. What does mental health really mean to me? It means a lot of hard work. Accepting that there was an issue to deal with at all is very hard work. Accepting that I was unable to deal with that struggle by myself was hard work. Accepting Karyn’s outside perspective on my internal struggle was hard work. It was hard work to admit that I have a problem that I cannot solve without medical intervention. It was hard work to go through the 9 different medications until my doctor and I found the one that helps me manage my symptoms the best. It is hard work to constantly examine my behavior and determine if my reactions are appropriate for the circumstances.

As with most difficult things, hard work is usually worth it. I have a successful business, and I have the respect of my colleagues. I have a marriage that has lasted over 21 years now. I have a wife and three kids whom I love dearly. I have many rewarding personal relationships, and I can look forward to a positive future. From time to time, I still struggle with anxiety and depression. I accept that my journey towards better mental health is a lifelong one. With the help of my family, my doctor, and my inner voice, I am now able to share in something that was not possible before I began this journey. That is shalom. For anyone on the path towards better mental health, shalom is the ultimate goal. I pray that we as a congregation can nurture one another in each of our personal journeys towards better mental health, and help each of us find our individual shalom.