Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Tips for Navigating Through the Mental Healthcare System: An Interview with Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman

Today I have the pleasure of interviewing one of my favorite bloggers/writers/professors and just plain talented people out there. Dr. Monica A. Coleman is a minister, scholar, activist, and writer. (Yes, it is possible to be all those things …). Presently, she is Associate Professor at Claremont School of Theology. And she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder! I was relieved to know that Harvard graduates can be bipolar too!


1. So as I read through some of your posts, your trip through the healthcare system—finding the right doctor—was just about as confusing as mine. What advice would you give to the person just starting that journey? What are some of the qualifications of good doctors, and red flags of bad doctors?

Monica: If I could do anything over again, I would take a trusted friend with me as an advocate.  When you’re sick, you cannot be your best advocate.  You just want someone to take the pain away, and you can’t make the clearest decisions.  At least, that was my story.  And that’s not just about mental health, but it’s especially true in this area.  My advocate could speak up for me, write things down, help me process them afterward, and talk about aspects of my journey and symptoms that I might not think to say.  This friend or advocate can also know you well enough to know when there’s not a good match in terms of values, personality, style, etc.


There is one thing I did that helped a lot – when I was looking for doctors about 10 years ago – I wrote all my symptoms down.  I wrote down every pattern I could think of, and answered all the questions I thought a doctor would ask (after all, they tend to ask the same introductory questions).  Then I handed these sheets of paper to a doctor.  It was much less exhausting than re-telling my story and symptoms every time I met with a new doctor.

I think that finding a good doctor is about finding the right match.  I want to have doctors with the same values and worldview that I have.  So I ask questions about their philosophical approach to health care.  I also want doctors that are feminists.  It sounds like an odd requirement, but I had a bad experience where a doctor in the hospital asked me why I moved to a particular city for a job when I was dating someone in another city and wanted to maintain the relationship.  I could barely believe I had to explain that my career was important to me too.  I need doctors who are not afraid of talking about faith – without eschewing medication.  I need doctors who understand the advantages and disadvantages of medication and alternative therapies, and who are willing to work with me across modalities


2. As a reverend, you are obviously a religious and spiritual person. How has your faith played a part in your recovery?

Monica: My faith has been the ground and saving force for me in the midst of living with a bipolar depressive condition.  In my most difficult darkest moments, I know with every fiber of my being that God is with me, and that God understands what I’m going through and how I feel.  In those moments, I feel like no one else can get inside my head and know me and understand me like God can.  I feel that God wants my wellness, but sits with me and holds me when I’m unwell.

When I crave community – or need community – to sustain me, the worship traditions of black churches are like a balm to my soul.  The music of the spirituals and the cadence of black preaching styles and the ritual of altar prayers transport me to some of my happiest and most spiritual moments as a child.  I feel the pains and joys of the ancestors and those in the present community and I literally feel uplifted and buoyed.  My parents and grandparents raised me in this tradition, and no depression yet has extracted this from my cells.


3. Do you find the stigma among the African American culture even thicker than the white culture? If so, how do you penetrate that?

Monica: In many ways, I do think that there is a greater stigma among African American culture than among white cultures.  I live in southern California, and many white people will freely reference “seeing a therapist” in normal conversation. Black people don’t do that.  Seeing a therapist is generally seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.  There is still an active mythos of “the strong black woman,” who is supposed to be strong and present and capable for everyone in her family – and neglects her own needs.  In the midst of a depressive episode, I had a friend say to me, “We are the descendants of those who survived the Middle Passage and slavery.  Whatever you’re going through cannot be that bad.”  I was so hurt and angry by that statement.  No, depression isn’t human trafficking, genocide or slavery, but it is real death-threatening pain to me.  And of course, there are those who did not survive those travesties.  But that comment just made me feel small and selfish and far worse than before.  It made me wish I had never said anything at all.


I am just now learning that vulnerability is strength.  I am learning to speak and write boldly about the reality of living with a depressive condition. Even when it’s hard and I don’t have it all figured out and it’s actively kicking my butt.  It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.  It feels like running naked across the front lawn.

But I also feel a lot of affirmation when people respond – especially other black women – and let me know that their processes and challenges are made lighter by hearing their experience reflected from a pulpit, leadership, the classroom, or wherever I am.  That confirms what I’ve felt is a calling from God.  It encourages me, and helps my health.

4. You are a beautiful writer. Is it therapy for you?


Monica: Thank you.

I think a lot of my writing emerges from the experience of living with a depressive condition.  I’ve often tried to hide my sadness and retreat into myself – while putting forth the exuberant, happy, productive side of myself.  I would pour the sadness into my writing – journal writing, poetry, short stories and prose.  As a teenager, I think my writing teachers saw my challenges more than anyone else.  I still find the page to be a safe place to express myself.  I still actively journal.  It’s a place to put my most raw emotions and be validated without worrying about the impact of those feelings.

My more public writing is ministry for me.  I have been so deeply moved by books that I personally know the power of the written word to create community, to validate, to encourage and nourish and create new worlds.  I don’t know that my writing has done this for others the way some writing has done this for me.  But I hope it does.  If I can accomplish even a fraction of that for at least one other person, then I feel that I am living out my calling.


Visit Monica’s website.

Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Virginia De Land

    I wanted to unsubscribe, but your method to accomplish that did not work for me. I am not interested in what you publish. I have my own beliefs.
    Thank you,
    Virginia De Land

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Chris

    This is to Virginia.
    I was taught that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. Obviously, you are angry about something, and I don’t think it was very kind of you to add this comment. I believe everyone has a “right” to their own beliefs and I RESPECT everyone’s beliefs, whatever religion they my be. I do not think you are being very respectful of Therese OR Dr.Monica. That being said, I think it would have been better to keep your comments to yourself. I guess my question to you would be: “If you feel so strongly, WHY are you still reading any of these posts????”

    To Therese-and Dr.Monica–Please keep writing!! You great lady’s help so many of us!! My apologies for Virginia’s post. She obviously has a “burr under her saddle” for some reason.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Shelly

    Once again Therese, you have, through your blog, directed me to another blog that feeds my soul. I clicked on Dr. Monica’s website and am reading her blog from past to present. I am doing the same with yours, up to 2009! I am so blessed that God has directed me to such wonderful role models of deep faith in the midst of a debilitating, chronic condition. It gives me such hope when I’m in the midst of depression or hypomanic episode. I glean the words of wisdom and put into practice those ideas that strike me in a lightbulb moment. You are a therapist to me just as my own therapist, my bipolar support group and others in my realm that understand. Thank you. Keep writing. You matter. God uses you. And for that, I am supremely blessed.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Christie Dunn

    this was great. My spiritual beliefs are the trajectory to my recovery. Yes,yes,yes! It is hope I can believe in, to quote someone.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nancy pearce

    This is my fourth time trying to get in touch with you to subscribe to Belief Net Beyond Blue. It will be my last. This last try, I forgot to give you my e-mail after writing out and trying to submit a comment hoping someone will pay attention. The first time I submitted I know the verification message I gave was right. Not according to the BIG RED X, so I enabled the site again twice. The verification messages got more weird and indecipherable. I do have cataracts, but a bunch of mumbo jumbo hodge podge would have the same result. I cannot decipher 2 scrunched together letters in a script that no 20/20 sighted person can deal wtih. If some have, I’m happy for them and your article and purpose are enviable, but I’m not wasting my valuable time trying to do the impossible 4 times. I’d prefer the spam rather than the frustration

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Corey

    I think you blog is great and i going to look at the docs. too your help me think of things and get over so stuff that i didnt think mattered thank you

  • Healthcare IT System

    I like your tips. Nice post… :-)

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