I have written and spoken before about my partner Michael’s depression and anxiety and his death. With Mental Health Week approaching, I offer a brief reflection on some of the beliefs and attitudes I have experienced that make having a mental illness or caring for a family member with a mental illness more difficult.
People who have mental illness are often defined by their illness as if that is all you need to know about them. They are ‘depressed’ or ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘manic’. People who have other illnesses aren’t described as ‘high cholesterol’ or ‘cancer’ or ‘heart attack’. A person with a mental illness is more than their illness.
When we define people as their illness, rather than a whole person, we contribute to the stigma that still attaches to mental illness. Stigma is a contributing factor to why many people who have a mental illness don’t seek treatment –they don’t want the label. It also means that some people with a mental illness are reluctant to tell family, friends, employers, their minister or congregation, even when they are receiving treatment.
Stigma also means family members may feel unable or unwilling to disclose their loved one’s illness and so don’t receive the care and support they need and want. Stigma contributes to the loneliness many people with a mental illness and their family experience, isolated by both the symptoms of mental illness and society’s judgment.
This stigma is compounded if your loved one dies by suicide. As a society we struggle to talk about suicide, there is also much misunderstanding and judgment. The silence, misunderstanding and judgment compound the stigma and stigma compounds the complex grief that accompanies the death of a family member or friend by suicide. In the church this can be exacerbated by a belief that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear, so ‘real’ Christians don’t contemplate suicide, let alone complete it.
Stigmatising of mental illness comes in part from a belief that mental illness is not really an illness. You hear it in comments such as “Just pull yourself together” or “You’ve got a good life, why are you sad” or “What a shame you have to take medication”.
But it is an illness. Its causes are complex and no one chooses to have a mental illness. We act with compassion when we accept it is an illness and treat people as people who are more than that illness.
There is a particular form of this misunderstanding amongst some people in the church. I hear it in comments that suggest the person is suffering because they lack faith, or don’t believe “properly” or “haven’t conformed their mind to Christ”. I don’t believe anyone suffers an illness because of a lack of faith or that God causes suffering – hence I don’t believe this about mental illness. As the church we need to value every person as a child of God, including those with a mental illness. We need to convey this without judgment about their illness and its symptoms.
I have known, and know, many faithful people who have a mental illness, including my partner Michael. Their illness is not a sign of a lack of faith, or a lack of commitment to prayer.
One of the things that can be hard about a mental illness is the way it robs the sufferer of the capacity to think clearly so it can become difficult or impossible to accept that God loves you or that you are worthy of care, love and support. Mental illness can shake faith, make it hard to believe in the goodness of God and to participate fully in the life of a congregation.
As a carer I also invite communities of faith to think about how you can care for the family of people with a mental illness. It can be lonely to be carer. Carers often bear the double burden of caring for their family member while having to take over the running of a home. Navigating the mental health system alongside the stigma is mind numbing.
I encourage those around carers to be a listening presence, without judgment. Ask what would help them and respond. It might be a meal, a coffee or lending a hand at home. Don’t be afraid to talk about their loved one’s illness if they are willing. Pray for them, pray for their loved one. Appreciate the way having a mental illness often means plans change at short notice. Treat each person in the family as a loved child of God. Let them know you are thinking of them.
During mental health week this year I am attending two lunches for carers as a way to express the compassion and support of the synod. As someone whose family has lived with mental illness, I will share a little of my story and offer some words of encouragement and hope.
Rev Sharon Hollis
As people who follow Christ, we seek to respond to need with compassion. The first step is to learn about mental illness and ways to appropriately support people with mental illness and their family.
The following are some helpful resources:
Mental health first aid training www.mhfa.com.au
Beyond blue www.beyondblue.org.au
The Black Dog Institute www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
The Queensland Synod website ucaqld.com.au/social-responsibility/key-social-justice-areas/calledtocare