The Rev. Toby Slough found the Hawaiian ‘o’opu, a member of the goby fish family, utterly fascinating.

The humble freshwater fish is found only in Hawaii, where it swims to waterfalls, leaps out onto the rocks and climbs upward using its mouth as a suction cup.

Slough, who encountered the strange beast just as COVID-19 detonated American lives in 2020, felt like there might be a story there. That story, he said, could reach children and teens beset by anxiety. It could also give their harried parents some help in guiding their children through the storm.

“What got me about it was the scientific details about this goby fish,” Slough said. “Halfway up this stream, their lower jaw grows to give it more power to suck onto the rocks.”

Slough’s fascination with the fish became Toby the Goby and a website of practical tools simply called “Goby.” The illustrated children’s book follows a goby named Toby as he swims through self-doubt and despair that threatens to keep him in the saltwater. Readers follow him as he strengthens his body and his resolve to climb the rocks to a freshwater destination, and they meet a cast of characters along the way.

“The message is three things, really,” Slough said. “Number one, you can do hard things. Number two, God is with you. And finally, three: You can help other people along the way.”

His own struggle

Slough is no stranger to debilitating anxiety. He’s preached, shared and taught about his own struggle with anxiety for nearly 30 years. Memories of days consumed by panic — shaking, unable to focus and agitated — can still make the pastor emotional.

“When I was diagnosed with acute anxiety and a panic disorder 27 years ago, no one was using the term ‘counselor.’ There wasn’t a lot of talk about therapy,” he said. “Back then, it was still a mental breakdown. Just a breakdown.”

There was still a lot of stigma about mental health care when Slough got his diagnosis. And both boys and men with anxiety or panic disorders continue to endure a deeper stigma.

“It’s effeminate, people think. It’s not masculine to have anxiety. People say, ‘You’re being a girl,’” Slough said.

Slough bucked convention and decided to share his mental health struggles with his congregation.

“One of my core beliefs is you can’t heal if you hide,” he said. “That’s not what I wanted my life’s work to be about, anxiety. I thought God would take it away, but instead, he let me use it to help other people.”

COVID collides with a trend

Anxiety among children and teens has been on the rise, with scholars and experts attributing the trend to everything from economic inequality to social media.

“We are seeing more mental health issues, yes,” Slough said, saying that pastors are increasingly responding with compassion instead of accusation that those with anxiety, depression and panic of suffering from a lack of faith. “The pandemic didn’t create something with all this when you talk about anxiety and depression among kids. It escalated something that was already there.”

Slough said the church hasn’t always been the best place to confess despair. Older churchgoers who have weathered anxiety and depression sometimes recall prescriptions of Bible verses and pat answers.

“My dream was to start a movement to normalize the conversation,” Slough said. “I’m not a counselor. I’m not a therapist. I very much believe in medication. I just want to connect with others around this, and use my own story to help people who are where I use to be.”

A little fish is born

Slough had discovered the Hawaiian fish, and his pastor’s imagination got going. Then he found a YouTube video that taught viewers how to draw a cartoon fish. Toby the Goby grew out of that.

Slough wrote the book about a wee goby named after himself, and his whale and albatross friends. His daughter-in-law, Michelle, illustrated the book. Written in plain, rhythmic language, the book follows the fish as he prepares for his uphill swim and then turns into a workbook that encourages young readers to draw the key players and read “the 40 ‘I Am’ statements” from the Bible, Slough said.

The book grew into a digital course on overcoming anxiety at www.beagoby.com. The course is based on Slough’s adult book about anxiety, Not Yet. Cross Timbers Church has completed a congregational study of the book, and Slough said he plans to publish a board book of Toby the Goby for younger children.

Between Not Yet and Toby the Goby, Slough said parents are getting more grounding to cope with uncertainty and children are getting reinforcement about the importance of connection, courage and faith. Adults will learn how they can support a family member, friend or spouse who is in the midst of a mental health crisis. Children will learn they aren’t alone.

“There was a Harvard Study, and it was kind of like ‘Duh, how much did they pay for this study?’ It said that the number one predictor of mental health of adolescents is the mental health of their parents,” he said. “I look at this as I’m putting a tool in their hands, and shifting away from solution-based outcomes. I want to help people get away from ‘Oh, you poor baby,’ or ‘You’re being a baby.’ Instead, I want to help people connect with their child at a point of pain. And look at it from ‘let’s talk about how we’ll get through this.’”

“As parents, we sometimes want to give our kids solutions, and we do that because deep down, we think it’s our fault,” Slough said. “It can help more, though, if we show our kids how they can work through it.”

Slough said he hopes Cross Timbers will equip members to stand in the storm with their loved ones, and to face the storm if they’re the ones suffering.

“I want people to know that they aren’t alone,” Slough said. “I know how you feel. If I could say anything to someone going through this, that’s what I’d say. That and that this is going to be harder than you think, but you will be better than you think. You just have to do some work.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

Recommended for you

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!