mental illness: 3 sets of 3 things

kathyescobar church stuff, healing, incarnational 25 Comments

compassion henri nouwen

mental illness. i want to be careful about writing about it because i don’t come from a place of personally knowing all the ins and outs of what it feels like. while i have a lot of struggles, the ongoing issues related to the biology and realities of mental illness are not part of my own personal story.  however, i know so many people who live with it in some shape or form.  there is a wide range of diagnoses, symptoms, and day-to-day realities; some are open about it, and share with safe community what it feels like, tastes like, is. others might not talk about it openly but are working hard to make things work despite the obstacles. many others are just worn out & tired because of it and sometimes want to throw in the towel.

personally, i am pretty mad that so many people i know suffer with its realities & ravages.  and God’s healing sure doesn’t seem to look like some of the scenes we have seen in the bible where things happen fast and miraculously.  in fact, intersecting with this much reality and pain when it comes to mental illness has made me re-think healing & miracles entirely.

i am no expert on mental illness, that’s for sure, so please know that anything i am sharing is just from what i keep learning a long the way in my little world and the not-so-popular Jesus school i am part of.  but there’s no question, the stigmas attached to it really suck and harm so many.

here are 3 main reasons mental illness really pisses me off:

1. it tells people lies. it makes people believe they are too hard to be around, too much, too _________, that if people really knew their truth they wouldn’t be loved and accepted.

2. it tries to strip dignity.  the crazy-in-the-head feeling can make so many feel less-than, ashamed, and unworthy.

3.  it doesn’t have any easy solutions.  a pill won’t do it, although it might help.  prayers wont’ do it, although they will help.  a now-go-to-this-group won’t do it, although it usually offers some relief.   its complications just don’t lead to easy answers.

there are also things i think it’s good for us as individuals, people who care, to consider about mental illness:

1. unless we’ve walked in another man’s shoes, we shouldn’t judge.  i can’t say what it feels like. i just can’t.  and that automatically means that i am disqualified from judgment.

2.  never assume. it’s so easy to see smiles and think someone’s “fine”  it’s easy to see darkness and assume someone’s worse than they are.  our assumptions can really cause us to deny reality or make reality worse than it is.

3. friends matter.  it’s a mean struggle, and the last thing that’s needed is more isolation & shame & harshness. at the same time, we are human and it can sometimes be hard to be a friend.

lastly, especially in light of hearing of 2 recent suicides connected to friends of mine just this week, both somehow connected to “church”, i think there are a few things that the church should consider related to mental illness to better love and care for the hurting:

1. it is damaging to put pat answers on this complicated problem. making mental illness a “sin issue” or creating an environment that is unsafe to share the truth of our struggles is really jacking with people. it leaves them with no choice but to split and try to manage their pain on their own (which never goes down well) or lose their community and jobs and reputations.

2. get better educated.  ask questions, get trained, meet with others who understand mental illness far more than you do, hear real stories, find ways for others to hear these stories.  do whatever’s possible to get schooled in its realities and help others learn, too. while relief is not one simple change away,  lots of constructive things together make a difference.

3. embrace the realities instead of run from them. pain is a lot of work. it requires time and energy and love and care that often doesn’t have a big pay-off.  but we have to trust that there’s something much bigger going on that has nothing to do with “results” or “wins” or “outcomes-the-way-we-want-them.”  it’s about love & presence & Jesus call to us to not run from the hard stuff.   it’s about our shared humanity, our we-all-have-our-own-pains-and-none-of-us-are-exempts.

Jesus welcomed pain.  and like a moth to a flame, people came for relief. at the same time, i am sure there were many others who were afraid to ask for help, afraid to cry out for the opportunity to touch his garment, who suffered alone while the crowds circled this strange, ordinary man who did extraordinary things.  stigmas have crossed many generations, making honesty very difficult.

my hope is that as we bring this very real issue into the light, less people will suffer alone.

that we will not let our fear prevent us from engaging with its realities. 

that we will be people of courage and peace and hope and healing, in it for the long haul.

that we will fight for our friends.

that we will never give up.

that we will remind each other that who we are in our worst moment is not who we really are.

that we will create churches and communities that welcome pain and restore dignity instead of slam the door shut at the first sign of danger.

that we will respect that living in real life with each other will be beautiful & hazardous and will require more of us than we bargained for. 

that we will keep learning, keep trying, keep praying, keep loving, keep walking toward the light together.    

these 9 things are such a small start, but i wanted to acknowledge this today while it was fresh on my mind.  i’d love to hear what else you’d add.