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By The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

#mentalhealth #mentalillness #schizoaffectivedisorder #compassion #generosity #charity

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, while most of us were still recovering from our Thanksgiving feasts, Bobby Vandrak gathered with his family as he prepared to do a 10-mile run around North Park Lake. Bobby wasn’t training for a marathon, nor was this part of his normal Saturday morning exercise routine. Bobby was running to make a difference. Before I share why he ran, let me tell you about who Bobby is.

I’ve known Bobby since he was four years old. I was pastor of his family’s church for 22 years, and they joined the church early in that time. I watched Bobby grow up from a four-year-old to a wonderful man. He and his family were heavily involved in the church.

They worshipped most Sundays together. He was involved in our children and youth programs, as well as our yearly youth mission trips. We were involved in our dynamic drama program, appearing in plays such as Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Honk, School House Rock, The Sound of Music, and

even a review that included songs from

Rent and Hamilton.

Bobby’s family were steadfast believers in turning faith into action. His mother, Heidi, is a therapist. His father was a doctor at Jameson Hospital in New Castle, PA. Generosity and service were central to their lives. Whenever one of the kids turned 17, Heidi had a tradition: each could choose a mission trip that she would then take her or him on. Bobby chose to go to Mexico City, helping in a medical mission doing eye exams and treatment for the poor.

Bobby’s father, Bob, died unexpectantly and suddenly in 2015, which had an impact on Bobby. Bob was not only a great doctor, but also always willing to help anyone in any way he could. Quite often he would bundle the kids on a Saturday morning into the car to do something new and exciting or to go help someone in need.

I asked Bobby in a recent interview that we posted last week on YouTube how his father’s death impacted him (For the full interview, visit Bobby said, “So with him passing away it showed me that with life you just have to keep going, you just have to continue to . . . I feel like I had a moment where I was like ‘I’m going to be bitter and sad and mad about this.’ But it really ended up turning into a switch of like, ‘I’m going to use this to the best of my abilities to make a difference.’”

This leads us to now. Bobby was diagnosed a few years ago with schizoaffective disorder, which is a really complex mental disorder where people can have elements of schizophrenia (hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders) and mood disorders (depression and/or mania). Each person’s course and symptoms vary, making it difficult to diagnose.

As you can imagine, receiving this diagnosis is traumatic. Who wants to hear that she or he has a serious mental health issue. Even the term itself, schizoaffective, sounds damning. Remember what Bobby said about dealing with the death of his father. He could become bitter and mad, but he chose “use this to the best of my abilities to make a difference.” He stopped drinking, which had been a form of self-medication, and chose to seek treatment, take his medication, and then use his natural gift for gab to be a positive influence to make people aware of mental health issues.

Recently he took another step toward health, which brings us back to his 10-mile run around North Park Lake. He decided he could use his illness and influence to raise money to help others. He set up a GoFundMe challenge for people to sponsor his run around the lake to raise money for Samaritan, as well as the Schizophrenia and Psychosis Action Alliance.

He raised over $6000 that Saturday morning, which included $3000 for Samaritan. But he did more than that. He raised awareness of mental health issues with so many people. Over 200 people have watched his interview in just the week it’s been posted, and many more have been touched through his Instagram and Facebook posts about it. Even more, he used his own generosity to improve his own mental health.

Generosity, gratitude, enthusiasm, passion, possibility, joy, faith, service, and so much more make a difference in our mental and spiritual health. We are so appreciative of what Bobby has done for Samaritan, but even more for what he’s done for himself and others. By being generous in sharing with others his diagnosis, challenges, and response, he is leading others to discover how they can make a difference for those struggling with mental health issues. His gift, as well others’ gifts, to Samaritan are a tangible way to make people’s lives better.

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Have you ever been in the presence of someone who lives in a truly grateful way? I mean someone who is grateful to be alive, grateful for the people in her or his life, and grateful for God’s presence, and sees the world around her or him with appreciation and joy?

I’ve had the privilege of meeting quite a number of these people as a pastor, spiritual director, therapist, and more. What makes them special is that when we’re around them, they have the ability to make us feel good about our own lives.

I had a simple realization years ago about the difference between hopeful and cynical people: cynical, pessimistic people suck energy out of us. Grateful, appreciative people give energy to us. You’ve experienced this. Think about times when you’ve had to listen to someone crab about his or her life—about politics, religion, people, bosses, spouses, teachers, his or her lot in life. You get trapped listening to them as they gain more and more energy from their growing anger, while you become more and more drained. Now think about the times you’ve spent with someone who is truly grateful, joyful, and positive. You feel more energized, more hopeful, more… possible. Gratitude gives energy. Cynicism sucks energy.

When I think about living a grateful life, I think about Sallie, a woman whose funeral I did years ago when I was her pastor. I had visited her often as her health declined over a ten-year period. Even in declining health she was an absolute joy to be around. Her arthritis and other ailments made it very hard for her to get around. Still, no matter how bad things got for her, she never complained. Even in the last years of her life, as macular degeneration took away her ability to read (her living room was stacked with cherished devotional books and magazines), she still had hope. She once told me that even though she couldn’t read, she still took comfort from all that she had learned from them.

Sallie was a bright light. Whenever I visited her, I tried to bring her some sense of comfort, but in reality she gave me more comfort and joy than I think I ever brought her. I often drove home feeling as though I had been in the presence of a great sage.

Her outlook on life was rooted in a deep sense of gratitude. She was grateful for her life. She was grateful for her children. She was grateful for her husband who had died so many years earlier. Sallie lived a life of gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.

I don’t want to give the impression that people like Sallie are perfect and live pain-free. They aren’t and they don’t. They make mistakes, parts of their lives can be messed up, and they struggle just like everyone else does. It’s just that people like Sallie choose to react differently to the struggles of the world than most of us. They can go through severe struggles, but they grow from them each time and they find meaning and purpose in them.

I look around and I see a world filled with miserable people. They’re not necessarily miserable because of the conditions of their lives, although their conditions often contribute to their misery. I see an attitude of misery reflected in the darkness of present movies, television, and novels nowadays. I see it on social media as people argue, complain, criticize, and crab about everything, especially during this pandemic. I see it in parents who constantly criticize their children, only seeing what’s wrong with them, what they don’t do, and how disappointed they are in them. I see this same dynamic in too many marriages, where over time it becomes easier to be critical of our spouses than complimentary. Life wears us down, as do relationships. Still, cynicism is a relationship killer. Good marriages, parenting, and lives are built on laughter, smiles, appreciation, and gratitude. Bad marriages are built on indifference, cynicism, and criticism.

The struggle of life is to see it with appreciative eyes rather than depreciative ones. Depreciative people diminish life by only seeing what’s wrong in the world around them. They’ll justify their cynicism and negativity by saying that we live in a hard world, and that they’re just being realistic. The reality is that they aren’t living in a cold, hard world. They’re just choosing to make it cold and hard.

Parts of life can be cold, ugly, and hard, but it still is wonderful, beautiful, joyful, and hopeful. Many people truly live in horrific, terrible conditions. At Samaritan we do our best to help these people make choices to transform them and their conditions. It’s hard work. Part of what we also do is help people see with different eyes, helping them to see what’s right, not just what’s wrong; what’s good, not just what’s bad; what they can do, not just what they can’t; what’s light, not just what’s dark; what’s possible, not just what’s impossible.

In my life I constantly return to what a great spiritual writer, David Steindl-Rast, says in his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: “What counts on your path to fulfillment is that we remember the great truth that moments of surprise want to teach us: everything is gratuitous, everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is the measure of our gratefulness. And gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness . . . In moments when we are truly alive, we experience life as a gift. We also experience life as surprise.”


The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

Executive Director

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The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

Executive Director and Director of Caring for Clergy and Congregations

At Samaritan, we constantly emphasize that we offer spiritually integrated psychotherapy. It’s at the core of almost everything we do. It’s foundational to our guiding vision: “For those who silently suffer with emotional, relational, or spiritual pain, we offer compassionate care that helps them heal, gives them hope, and allows them to change.” It’s what makes us stand out among all other counseling centers.

Still, what does it mean that we’re spiritually integrated? We walk a path between religious counseling that sometimes embraces a stringent, restrictive biblical and theological perspective, and secular counseling that often doesn’t know what spirituality really is.

Our therapists represent a variety of religious perspectives—Protestant, Catholic, Non-Denominational, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and other faiths; as well as a variety of ideological perspectives—conservative, moderate, and progressive. This variety enables us to help people engage their own traditions in ways that open them to God’s healing in and through therapy, without imposing a particular religious perspective. So, while we are open spiritually, we remain client-centered. We never use therapy as a conversion tool, nor force people to integrate spirituality into their therapy.

Our path isn’t an easy one because some would insist we adopt only their religious perspective, while others would want us to get rid of religious influences entirely. For us, excellence means being grounded in well-researched and proven therapeutic techniques, while also being spiritually open to something beyond ourselves that can heal minds, hearts, and relationships. It’s why we also offer life coaching and spiritual direction, in addition to therapy.

How do we walk this path? Let me give you an example. Last year I received a referral from a pastor who had previously sent a couple to a “Christian” therapist. The husband had been abusing the wife emotionally and physically. According to the pastor, the “Christian” therapist told the couple that the core of their problem was not being biblical enough. He said that the wife was not being obedient enough to the husband, which was causing friction, while the husband was not cherishing his wife enough, leading to his abuse. The therapist wanted to help her obey him better, while teaching him to cherish her more, which he hoped would stop the abuse. In the end the abuse continued because the “Christian” therapist didn’t protect her or deal with the abuse.

How do we walk this path? Let me give you an example. Last year I received a referral from a pastor who had previously sent a couple to a “Christian” therapist. The husband had been abusing the wife emotionally and physically. According to the pastor, the “Christian” therapist told the couple that the core of their problem was not being biblical enough. He said that the wife was not being obedient enough to the husband, which was causing friction, while the husband was not cherishing his wife enough, leading to his abuse. The therapist wanted to help her obey him better, while teaching him to cherish her more, which he hoped would stop the abuse. In the end the abuse continued because the “Christian” therapist didn’t protect her or deal with the abuse.

How are we different? We deal with the abuse, focusing on the safety of the wife and children, and helping her become stronger psychologically and spiritually to make better life decisions. We also make him fully aware that the abuse cannot continue, and he has to change and grow. In this case, safety and healing is more important than the marriage. I assured the pastor that our therapists are centered in what’s best for everyone involved in a way that leads to healing whether in the marriage or beyond it. The spiritual integration we might practice (in addition to the counseling) is asking the wife what God is seeking for her that can lead to safety and healing, which may or may not include staying in the marriage. For him it would be emphasizing anger management and life changes, which could include a deeper spiritual awareness leading to a transformation of his life, whether in the marriage or beyond it.

Another example: I was called by a Roman Catholic woman who had been seeing a secular therapist for what she called “life issues”—concerns that her life wasn’t fulfilling. She told me that she liked her therapist, but the therapist seemed particularly anti-Catholic; and that the therapist’s “spiritual” approach was limited to teaching mindfulness and meditation (both good practices, but not necessarily responsive to the client’s issues). I told her that our therapists are more likely to explore psychologically how she can find meaning and purpose in her life, while also tapping into a sense of God’s calling and her Catholic faith to see how it can guide her in enhancing a sense of meaning and purpose.

We recognize that religion and spirituality aren’t necessarily the same thing, but that everyone’s religious tradition has practices, insights, and opportunities that can help them grow personally, which leads to healing.

Healing IS the key. So much research has been done showing that people who are more open spiritually live healthier lives. And integrating spirituality into therapy aids therapy and leads to greater satisfaction with counseling. We see ourselves as a healing place where hidden wounds are cared for and healed so that people can live happier, healthier lives.

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