Christian faith communities are often on the front lines when it comes to identifying people suffering with mental illness, but we have not always been the best at offering love and hope to those who suffer. The stigma of mental illness is still very real.
How many times have I heard a well meaning follower of Jesus Christ who, on the one hand, denied the reality of mental illness and saw people struggling with mental health concerns as weak or as failures, or who, on the other hand, assumed that anyone with mental illness was prone to uncontrollable violence and criminal activity and should be isolated for the good of the majority?
It is not unusual for otherwise well-informed Christians to misunderstand the fact that 55% of male inmates in state prisons and 73% of female inmates in state prisons have a history of mental health problems. These statistics are more an indictment of the state of mental health care in this country than evidence of direct link between mental illness and violent crime.
Untreated mental illness can make it difficult for a person to qualify for and to keep employment that provides a living wage, to manage personal finances, to maintain adequate nutrition and housing, and to function independently. Most people who receive appropriate mental health treatment do better than those who are untreated, but there are no miracle cures for the symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and personality disorders, and most treatments need to be ongoing.
My experience with people suffering from the consequences of mental illness comes not only from my work as a pastor, but also from my relationships with close family members. Unlike heart disease or cancer, which have been the focus of significant advances in diagnosis and treatment, mental illness is still under-reported and under-treated due to the social stigma associated with any type of mental disorder.
I believe we Christians do a great disservice to those who struggle with mental illness when we blame the victims and seek protection from them rather than protection for them Christians need to understand that mental illness is not a spiritual failing and that effective treatments are available to those who are able to work their way through the maze of possible options to identify the right combination of medication, therapy and counseling for their individual situation.
What can we as representatives of God in the world do to make a difference for our friends and neighbors and family members struggling with mental illness?
- Acknowledge that mental illness is a physiological disorder.
- Recognize when those we know and love are demonstrating symptoms of mental illness.
- Encourage anyone struggling with the symptoms of mental illness to seek professional medical help.
- Walk beside those suffering with mental illness as they begin and continue treatment.
- Advocate for better access to mental health care.
Christ calls us to treat all people with the same love and respect with which we expect to be treated. If you want to make a difference, you need to be the difference!