Mental Illness, Isolation, and Ministry
The discussion last week after my post about the Tucson shooting brought home to me all the more clearly that mental illnesses do not affect “those people” over there, but they affect us. Pejorative labels like “crazy” and “whacko” only reinforce this separation or stigma which hovers over people with mental illnesses. But the people who live with mental illness are not just those with the disease itself, but also their family members, friends, fellow church members, and society as a whole.
We’re in this together, and the more we try to separate the “us” (whoever that may be) from the “them” (people with mental illnesses) the more troublesome the mental illnesses will be. Just as with other disabilities, we have a collective responsibility as a church and as a society to do to others as we would have them do to us.
Harriet Brown was forced to think carefully about stigma after he daughter Kitty was diagnosed with anorexia several years ago. Harriet wrote an insightful memoir published last year about her family’s experiences. Reflecting on stigma she wrote, “Back in the 1600’s, people thought you could catch a mental illness by touching someone who had one. We haven’t come very far from that idea. We treat people with mental illnesses like lepers, stepping over them in the street when their disorders lead to homelessness, poverty, drug addiction; we shun them when they turn out to be people we know. A few psychiatric disorders have lost a little of that stigma—for example, people talk more openly now about depression and bipolar disorder. But with few exceptions we still don’t want to hear about the most severe cases of depression, or about the inner lives of people with schizophrenia or personality disorders. Once the label is slapped on, you enter a world made nightmarish not just by whatever disorder you’ve got but by the stress of being marginalized in a society that fears and loathes any hint of mental differences” (Brave Girl Eating, New York: HarperCollins, 2010, pp. 61).
Our collective responsibility means that we need to understand not only compassion and reflective listening and where to get resources but also how to set appropriate boundaries and even when to make decisions for someone who is not competent to make decisions for herself. Brown describes the “refeeding” program that they did with Kitty to restore her from severe malnutrition that put her into a hospital ICU to good health. And Kitty wasn’t offered much choice about what she would eat or how much.
Brown said that to expect Kitty to be able to decide for herself, when her anorexia was at its worst, what she would eat and when and how much would have been cruel. The voice of “the demon,” as Brown calls Kitty’s anorexia, was much too overpowering in Kitty’s life for Kitty to overcome that voice herself. Brown and her husband Jamie had to make diet and portion decisions for Kitty or she would have died.
But as hard as it was for the Browns, making nutrition decisions for their eighth grade child is still much less difficult than helping a severely mentally ill parishioner get the help that he needs (as Pastor Randy described in his comments last week). The Browns never held Kitty and forced food into her mouth. But they were still Kitty’s legal guardians. She still lived in their home. They had a lot of say over what she could be allowed to do and what they would not allow her to do. But trying to get help for an adult, who is not a family member, can feel overwhelming as Pastor Randy describes.
What do we do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear yours as well.
- Pray for people with mental illnesses, their families, for churches, courts, mental health workers, and lawmakers.
- Develop relationships. Let us who are part of the church especially not run away from people living with mental illnesses, but love as Christ first loved us.
- Get informed about mental illness and basic steps to help. A fine new training, Mental Health First Aid, has become available in the US and in Canada in the past few years. Disability Concerns has a some resources as well.
- Get involved in the mental health and political systems. Not everyone’s calling is the same, but I’m am thankful for Christians who serve as counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers, social workers, case workers, judges, lawmakers and others who seek to live out their Christian commitment in whole or in part in ministering with people with mental illnesses. Some of us may feel called to lobby decision makers for broader and better services for people with mental illnesses and their families.
For far too long people with mental illnesses and their families have stood alone. Has your church found a way to minister well with people living with mental illnesses? What have they done? Do you have other ideas? Please share them.