Mental Illness: Opening Communication, Removing Stigma
- Among 15-29-year olds, suicide is the second highest cause of death in the United States.
- Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day.
- A few years ago, fifteen seniors died of completed suicide daily.
Tragic statistics which, according to Dr. Jeremiah Johnston, founder of Christian Thinkers Society (christianthinkers.com), have led the World Health Organization to term mental health and suicide as epidemic. Johnston was the keynote speaker at Saturday’s first annual “Community Gathering for Mental Health” at Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, California.
One in four Americans suffers from some sort of mental illness, so it touches us all, personally or with a family member or close friend. And this disease carries with it both isolation (people are afraid to be open about mental illness); and stigma (we often don’t know how to respond to someone dealing with mental illness, so ignore them. “That’s someone else’s job”). Some of us can recall times of shock when we learned of someone we knew (or knew of, like Robin Williams) taking his or her own life, a life that appeared full. The happy mask was effective; have we, church and society contributed to people feeling the necessity to wear it?
So how can we as the faith community help those who suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disease, schizophrenia, or other mental illness?
- Recognize that every family struggles. Almost everyone is touched either personally or within their family by mental illness in some form. We are all broken. As we open the conversation we also begin to remove the stigma associated with mental illness.
- Love rather than judge and condemn. Two mothers talked about their grief when their sons took their own lives; and how hard it was to share their own pain because no one understood what they were going through.
- Build support groups in the church for ALL ages. Depression is starting younger and younger. Watch for signs and address them early, through appropriate therapeutic and medical interventions, as well as community.
- Encourage the mentally ill in our faith communities to get involved, getting off the sidelines. A TLC staff member shared about her panic attacks, and the process of working through those with a competent Christian counselor. She is now contributing significantly to the church family. And a young man who suffers from schizophrenia has remained out of the hospital for twelve years now and works with the Santa Cruz chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
Johnston says we have a lot to learn from those who have suffered from and are dealing with mental illness. Former slave trader John Newton, who came to know Christ and wrote the song “Amazing Grace,” co-wrote many hymns with William Cooper. Cooper suffered with lifelong, chronic depression. Out of his pain, Cooper was able to dig deep into the grace of God and pass that along through the hymns he wrote.
I’ve dealt with depression at a couple of points in my life, and am grateful for wise counseling, a supportive family and friends, and a small daily pill. Why is it so hard to talk about this, to admit that I am broken, that I need help from God and others? I am grateful for a church that is focused on opening conversations, removing stigmas, and partnering with others who can provide support and help for those in need. Johnston said Jesus’ ministry focused on removing barriers to belief. I love that.
What do you think makes it so hard to be open about our own brokenness? I’d love to engage on this question.