Daniel Whitehead interviewing Markku Kostamo on Zoom

Mental Health, Faith & COVID-19 With Markku Kostamo

Markku KostamoPodcast, Podcast COVID

Mental Health, Faith, and COVID-19 with Markku Kostamo from Sanctuary Mental Health on Vimeo.

Episode Description:

Chief Growth Officer at Himalayan Life and Sanctuary’s new Director of Development (surprise!), Markku Kostamo, talks about the gift of living in community during COVID-19, the disorientation of this liminal space we find ourselves in, and the practices that are helping him stay well and grounded.

Running time: 28:29

Release date: June 5, 2020

Update on The Sanctuary Podcast:

During these extraordinary times, while we can’t be with each other physically, we can reach out through screens and over phones, and we can share our stories with each other. Join Sanctuary’s CEO, Daniel Whitehead, as he interviews pastors, front line workers, ministry leaders, and friends about their experience of the pandemic and where they are making meaning and finding hope in the ups and downs of this season.

Resources mentioned in the show:

A Rocha Canada

Himalayan Life

Bipolar 1 Disorder

Dan Allendar podcast: COVID and Trauma

I-naturalist App

Liminal space

Victor Turner, British cultural anthropologist

Sleep hygiene

The Sanctuary Course

Faith, Grief, and COVID-19

Crisis Resources:

For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:

  • Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
  • New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
  • Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14 

Daniel Whitehead: Welcome to the Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries podcast, my name is Daniel Whitehead. I am the CEO of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, and during COVID-19, I’m also our podcast host. The whole vision for this series is that we’re talking to everyday people, friends of Sanctuary’s, friends of mine, just to hear how they’re doing, and to understand what life is like for them in the midst of COVID-19. And today we’re joined by a really good friend of mine, Markku Kostamo. Markku is based just south of Vancouver. Markku is a Christian leader with over twenty-five years’ experience. He was the founding director together with his wife Leah Kostamo of A Rocha Canada, and a few years back, he stepped out of that role, just at the time when Markku was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1. And subsequently Markku has gone on to work for a charity here called Himalayan Life, which works in Nepal, and he is their Chief Growth Officer. Markku, it’s wonderful to have you with us, thanks for joining us.

Markku Kostamo: Thanks Daniel it’s a pleasure to be with you, and I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Daniel Whitehead: Me too. It’s always lovely to talk with Markku because he’s just a lovely man, and it would be remiss of me not to say that to everyone. So Markku, why don’t you start…

Markku Kostamo: Thanks Daniel, you’re so generous.

Daniel Whitehead: It’s the truth.

Markku Kostamo: Just so you guys all have a bit of a context, and Daniel you have a bit of a context of where I am right now, I’m in our den at Kingfisher Farm, and we live here with six other families actually, and I’m looking over, and every once in a while, I’ll be distracted because the goats are chomping on the grass, and they’re super cute out there. So we’re growing vegetables here, four goats, forty chickens, and three ducks, along with a few dogs and a cat.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, very cool, so maybe that’s an interesting place to start Markku because—really I want to hear how you’re doing, and what’s you know, and what is life like for you at the moment, as a husband and a parent, and as someone who lives with bipolar disorder and as a leader—but maybe let’s start with where you live. So you live in like a kind of intentional community, do you want to talk a bit about that?

Markku Kostamo: Yeah, so there’s twenty eight of us including fourteen adults, and fourteen kids or so, and yeah it’s actually lovely, during this time of COVID it’s been such an amazing treat. I mean we are physical distancing from each other, but it doesn’t stop us from getting together for Sunday afternoon gin and tonics in the orchard. So what a delight, eh, to have fourteen of your friends gathered around the lawn, I mean six feet apart but sharing a gin and tonic and chatting about the day, rather than being on Zoom, where most of my working life is on Zoom—which is better than not seeing people but virtual experience isn’t quite the same as an incarnational, lived experience being in front of people. And I understand that just our brains are so wired for seeing people and particularly we hone in on the facial expressions of people, and it’s just different live than it is virtual. And I think that’s probably a challenge that we all share right now, everything’s so virtual during COVID that we’re missing out on that, but it’s a huge advantage and a privilege to share this journey with other families together, and to have that sense of community. I mean we don’t—we still have farm work days together, but we don’t eat together once a week like we have in the past, so there’s definite changes to the community. And we don’t enter into each other’s living spaces, so we’re taking COVID seriously, but there’s sort of a built in community, I mean as you would in a village, a small village, kind of like in you know, England somewhere—thirty people in a village.

Daniel Whitehead: Of course that’s what England is like, it’s just villages full of thirty people, who drink gin and tonic in the orchard, that’s—I wish. But so Markku, it’s interesting your experience living in community at the moment has been a tremendous gift in that you’ve got access to people, albeit socially distancing, but there are people that you can see pretty regularly, so those rhythms—though they’ve amended, they’re kind of the same, which must be a tremendous gift to you. I mean I know you pretty well, so I know you’re a people person, you love being with people. That must be kind of handy for you, and I wonder is that handy for you in managing your own lived experience, of living with bipolar disorder?

Markku Kostamo: Yeah it has been. I think rhythms are really important for me, and so the rhythms of—I mean it doesn’t even start with people, actually it starts with our dog. The first thing I do in the morning is get up and walk our dog, and then I do that actually three times a day, so I’m getting in usually an hour and a half of walking a day. So having that rhythm built in of physical activity, and kind of, I wouldn’t say bounding out of bed, but at least a kind of groggily getting up and forcing myself to have some sort of activity has been super grounding. The rhythms of family life, I think, have been really grounding—meals together, and I’m cooking myself a lot more now too, so that’s a good thing and my family thinks that’s a good thing. I mean, not that the food is necessarily a good thing, but I’m cooking is the good thing. Yeah, so I think those kind of rhythms that are built in, including then at the community level, where we have, we still have our regular meetings—we tried a couple with Zoom and then we just, “forget that, let’s just freeze and be in the orchard, or in the barn,” and actually do it face to face, and make them shorter and a better experience. So having those kind of rhythms and farm work days. And yeah once a week I collect, I care for the chickens and get, collect the asparagus, so even though those kind of rhythms I’m finding are really good for me, by just getting me into my body. I don’t know how you’re finding that, but this in this season where we’re feeling fragmented, and I think this is a common experience that there’s loss, there’s grief, there’s fragmentation, and disconnection, but maybe the best thing that we can do, to counter that is to actually get into our bodies, whether it’s intentionally or not. But how are you finding that?

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah 100% agree with that. I’ve discovered this, the wonderful gift of walking in the last month, so every morning, I’m just like you, every morning I get up and I go for a walk for an hour, hour and a half. I live on the edge of an incredible forest, which I’ve lived on the edge of it for like four years, but only in the last few weeks have I really appreciated just how incredible it is. When you have these, these trees that are just vast, that I’m walking through, and we live by the sea, so yeah this is so helpful for me—just walking, being in nature, being in creation. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it’s been in this time for me personally.

Markku Kostamo: And here’s like your local ecologist tip, is if you get, you can kind of blend the virtual and the incarnational, and get this app called iNaturalist, so you can look at all the plants and bushes that you’re walking by, with your smartphone and then just participate with Adam in that first task—that we were created to do was name the plants and animals, so a friend of mine yesterday was trying it, on her dad—this is Zoe, who lives downstairs—and came up with mammal. But all the little plants and things it actually names it so you can kind of integrate, integrate that walking with something new, and yeah learning more about your neighbours.

Daniel Whitehead: Very good thanks for the tip. Everyone—iNaturalist app, I will look that up. So Markku, tell me your work with Himalayan Life. You’re obviously seeing, or you must know a lot of people that are experiencing different kinds of challenges right now, in the midst of COVID-19, maybe you could speak to that for a little bit.

Markku Kostamo: Yeah I would say like holistically, like this from a global perspective, I mean there’s obviously a North American perspective, and there’s a, you know, you know a global perspective—and then there’s a developing world, or a global south perspective. But I think they’re still all real, and there’s a felt-loss and grief. I was listening to a really great podcast by Dan Allender yesterday, and where he was talking about COVID and trauma, and that we’re actually all experiencing trauma, you know. And it’s all real and felt, even though in Nepal some of the day labourers that we know—who, you know, they live hand to mouth, so without employment they don’t have the cushion in their bank account, and there is no government subsidies. So in our work with Himalayan Life we haven’t laid anybody off, we have about a 160 staff in Nepal—so between, you know, the 2,000 plus children that we’re supporting, in our work directly, then there’s all the families of all our staff, so we’re probably in a way carrying 3,000 to 4,000 people through this season of COVID, where lockdown is intense in Nepal. There are food shortages starting to happen in some of the bigger cities. The outlying villages out further they’re—I mean it’s subsistence agriculture anyway, so they’re sort of COVID-proof, so a large portion of our country is COVID-proof. It’s the larger urban centres where they’ll run out of—the Indian border’s closed, so they’re starting to run out of fuel, and they’ll start to run out of some food supplies. So and then I think there’s just the, you know, being idle—like not having the same kind of work focus, and the loss of that and the grief of that. And I think we, even though some of us are continuing to work here, and even in Nepal some of our team are continuing to work, many of them are continuing to work—I think this would be a common experience is that we’re, I think we’re all experiencing something that you could say is in that liminal space. And you know in the definition of a liminal space from—it’s an ecological term, actually—it’s, you’re moving from one ecosystem to the other, and on a map it’s a sharp line, but in reality on the ground you’re in this space between two different ecosystems. And it’s, I mean you could think about it going from ocean to the shore, or you could think about it going from a field to the forest, but that transitioning from one ecosystem to the other is disorienting because while you’re in that liminal space, you don’t know where you are—are we in like, are we going back to what it was like? And I think that’s the thing that we’re struggling with vocationally right now, is what does the world look like, post COVID-19—or is there a post COVID-19, or is this a new normal and this is in this kind of liminal space, or you could say interim space, whatever language you want to use—but I love that ecological term of being in liminal space. So we’re thinking about that with Himalayan Life, that we’re in this liminal space, it is disorienting, and I think that’s probably your experience. It’s experience for many of us, not just people in Nepal, but here too. Like what will life look like after? I think it is changing the world in some way, and that there will be a new normal. We don’t quite know what that looks like, and I think in the midst of that we’re, our common experience is probably disorientation, as it is for just, for anybody transitioning from one, space to the other space—it’s just that transition liminal space is disorienting, it’s tiring, it’s new, it’s—you know we might get more uptight, we might be more anxious. So I think I’m just trying to weigh in myself, like what’s happening in myself like, as well, and I could speak more to that next if you like.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah that would be great. I think it’s interesting, I didn’t know liminality or liminal space was a geological term. I’d always heard it used in an anthropological context, that you know—there are, there are rights of passage and transitions. So like Victor Turner was an anthropologist who studied majority world tribes, and looked at rights of passage, and would describe these liminal experiences were times in our life where, it’s like it could go one way or the other, these spaces where you just don’t know. But somehow in those spaces, we’re somehow more formed in a profound way. Like we have these times of deep learning, and hearing you talk about COVID-19 as a liminal space, which it undoubtedly is, I also think about your own journey with receiving the bipolar 1 diagnosis three years ago. And I kind of wonder, are you—that liminal space are you still in that liminal space, what is life like learning how to live with this diagnosis?

Markku Kostamo: Yeah I mean it’s a good question, I think that I’m still on a steep learning curve. I’m probably not in what is that first initial liminal space, so like transitioning from life before, a diagnosis to life you know, and living and owning and understanding the space that I’m in. One of the challenges with bipolar disorder is that there’s always transition. I mean by definition you’re transitioning from, you know being hypomanic potentially, or you know up at least, and then to a low or a depression. So there are always those transitions, and you’re trying to correct that. For example I travel with work, with Himalayan Life, twice a year to Nepal, and coming back from Nepal is always a challenge. And this is true for most people with bipolar disorder is that the circadian rhythm is so important to our stability—so going to sleep at the same time every night and getting up at the same time the next morning, and sleeping well and sleep hygiene is critical. But for any of us, I think, international travel just disrupts that for a couple of weeks. So if you imagine how you feel with jetlag and what that does to you, just multiply it by twenty or thirty of forty or fifty times, that’s what someone with bipolar disorder experiences. And so I think for me, just even in this season—I just, you know, came back from Nepal, directly into quarantine, isolation—like strict isolation for two weeks, even though I lived in community I was disengaged, I wasn’t eating with my family, I wasn’t—so just living through this time, in this season I would say that I’m probably, I would call it liminal space. But it’s for a different reason. I think I’m pressing into growth, in a new way, and so I would almost say I’m experiencing something analogous to a dark night of the soul. But not necessarily in a spiritual sense; it’s more from a psychological perspective of actually pressing in, and wanting growth. So I’m doing a fair bit of therapy in this season. I just thought, “hey this is, this is an amazing opportunity for growth, and healing and pressing in, pressing into relationships, pressing into you know, trauma that I’ve experienced, even in childhood and just learning about what does healing look like. Pressing into that kind of journey around bipolar, and just pressing into health around that—from diet and exercise and prayer, contemplation, meditation, like all of that. So, yeah, and I found like just connecting with people, and I am a bit of an extrovert, so I love to connect, but I also think that for all of us, from a mental health perspective, connection is so important—that social connection and friendship. And so talking to people on the phone, or engaging with small groups through Zoom, or going for walks with a friend, where we’re physical distancing, yeah all of that I think has been—is continuing to be a really important part of my journey right now in this season.

Daniel Whitehead: When you talk about your kind of holistic approach to wellness—and intentionally you know you listed a whole bunch of things that you do, whether it be exercise, eating well, sleeping well, therapy, spiritual practices—and kind of listing them all, it’s something that strikes me that at Sanctuary one of the things we advocate for and we tell people is as much as a mental health diagnosis can be a very traumatic and difficult time, and it can become like a label, like a stigmatizing label which it should never be—but one thing that many people I know who live with a mental health diagnosis, or mental illness, is they’re often people who know how to live well, they’re often people who’ve done the work of going actually I need these rhythms in my life, I need these things in my life, and if I don’t have them, I can’t actually live out wellness, whereas many other people who don’t have a diagnosis, so in the eyes of the world they could be seen as being more well, actually don’t understand what they need to be well. And so they don’t live quite as full a life. Has that been true for you, Markku, in terms of the life you live now?

Markku Kostamo: Well I wish I could say that I’ve always been really disciplined, and this is, by nature I’m, I’m by nature probably go more with the energy that I have in the moment, which means my tendencies are towards workaholism, like I go full out. So you know I’ll tend more than my wife, Leah, I’ll tend to—let’s watch another episode, you know like I’ll kind of go with that, like I’m not by nature like a super disciplined person. So I haven’t arrived at all; I am trying to be more disciplined, for myself and my wellness, but also for the sake of my family. So that as they co-journey with me, that I’m more stable, not just for my sake but for my family’s sake as well, so but I see that I mean I’m tasting that, I’m experiencing that now, and I have in other seasons as well. But it’s been, much more of a sort of, an up and down journey, and that’s part of what I’m wanting this season to be, to be really honest is to grow in this wellness journey and to create the rhythms that I can actually execute on this day in and day out. Those changes happen—I mean I’m, it’s common is that I’ve tried to make some big changes, and those haven’t been as successful as making small changes every day, and turning the dial a little bit, seems to work better for me at least.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah I think we’d all be a lot more at peace with the world, if we understood that transformation normally happens in tiny incremental steps, and not giant leaps. And as much as I in my life, keep trying to take giant leaps in every area of my life, I’m realizing it’s normally slow burn and little steps, and almost like that’s how God’s made it to be in some ways, it’s kind of good for us that way. I feel like I push against that as well.

Markku Kostamo: One of the things I just wanted to—maybe at least from my perspective and which is that our common experience right now, I don’t know how you’re experiencing this Daniel but that there is an impact, and whether we call it trauma or disorientation, or lack of focus, but that’s I think a common shared experience for many of us in this season. And so I just wanted to encourage you and encourage myself and others, is that hey this is a common experience, so it will just be lovely for us to just reach out to each other, and start from this shared experience, shared lived experience of what is it like for youto journey with COVID, through this season of COVID, and to actually, even if we don’t have language but to provide language for each other to say, “it’s okay to be not as focused,” or you know are you finding that you’re having more conflict with your spouse, or friends, loved ones during through this time, or I don’t know—I mean we all have different responses. Or you know one friend said he’s tending to be more like a hermit right now. So yeah that feels like an appropriate response right now, that you would feel like that. But it’s great that we’re chatting now, so yeah, so I think, phone calls, Zooms to each other, walks with each other, and just sharing how each other are doing would be a real gift.

Daniel Whitehead: Very good, very good thank you Markku, thank you for sharing, and thank you for your candour and honesty, and thank you for the app recommendation. And yeah, just, you know, I often say to people, some of the bravest people I know are people who have lived through a mental health diagnosis, or a mental health challenge, and who are working out how to do it. And I just know the bravery you’ve exhibited over the last three years in doing that, so I just want to acknowledge that and honour that in this moment, in this small way, just to say, I really admire you and how you’re walking the walk, and yeah the path that’s been laid out before you.

Markku Kostamo: Thank you Daniel and thanks for all the good work, that you are doing in your leadership and work with Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, it’s such an encouragement to all of us on the mental wellness journey, and just to have the church engage—seriously engage around that—and for you to provide the tools that you’re providing, and particularly the new resource on grief which is so appropriate to this season. So thank you for that.

Daniel Whitehead: No not at all, thanks Markku. So everyone if this has been helpful for you, please share it with someone. As Markku said we have a new resource out on faith and grief during COVID-19, available from sanctuarymentalhealth.org, as well as our Sanctuary Course which is our eight-session mental health and faith course to help faith communities have a conversation around faith and mental health. So download it all for free from our website, sanctuarymentalhealth.org, and we’ll see you again. God bless.

Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the church to be a sanctuary for all people, at all stages of their mental wellness journey, may this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story, and the stories of others as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those suffering with mental health challenges. 

The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith, it is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps, perhaps most importantly through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for people to share their mental health stories, and receive support in community. 

Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focussed on an individual story, a person of faith whose journeyed through mental health challenges. 

This podcast is released under creative commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives 4.0 license. Don’t change it or sell it but please share it all you like.