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Mental Illness—A Christian Response
By: Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.
Early in life, we become aware that humanity is wounded. We learn this from Scripture, observation and experiences of our own weakened wills and darkened minds. How are we as Christians to look upon mental illness and those who suffer from it?
From earliest human history we find references to mental illness. Homer (ninth century B.C.) speaks of people “losing their minds.” Hippocrates (fifth century B.C.) describes melancholy and depression. And we’re familiar with the emotional suffering of Job (Job 6:2-3). People today continue to be overwhelmed by depression, paralyzing anxiety and addictions.
Simply because the U.S. is a first-world nation whose citizens enjoy freedom and material benefits, it’s not exempt from mental illness. In fact, many contend that uncontrolled freedom becomes license and lawlessness and ends up causing anxiety, depression and addictions.
Daily news reports speak of economic recession and update us on the growing number of home foreclosures and the loss of jobs, health insurance and retirement benefits. Many people are experiencing great stress and worry resulting in increased mental and emotional trauma. If unemployment lines are long, they’re just as long outside mental-health clinics.
The National Institute of Mental Health’s Web site (www.nimh.nih.gov) lists detailed statistics for mental illness in the United States. An estimated 26 percent of American adults (58 million) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. In fact, nearly half of these suffer from multiple disorders.
The NIMH studies found the largest number of people (40 million adults) suffer from anxiety disorders. These include various degrees of anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias.
The second-largest group (about 21 million adults) suffers from mood disorders including depression (15 million) and bipolar reactions (6 million). A smaller number suffer from schizophrenia and its variations (2.4 million). Add to this the growing numbers affected by Alzheimer’s disease, eating disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism. In all, it’s a story of great suffering, not just for the victims, but also for those who care for, live with and love them.
The Faith Perspective
What is the Christian response to mental illness? We believe that every person is a creation of a loving God. There’s not one person whom God loves less than another. God is, after all, love itself, and love is what God does. Neither mental nor physical illness is a punishment from God, though in a time of suffering, it’s common for a person to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” It’s a question that has been asked as long as there has been suffering.
We know God, who gave us life, can’t take his eyes off of us. We profess that every time we recite the creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God...[who] was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” The Son of God became small enough to set foot on this earth and become one of us. Imagine, God in the flesh left footprints and fingerprints on earth!
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Jesus entered a world of suffering, sickness and death. In fact, the Gospels reveal a savior who never shied away from the sick and suffering but rather went out to meet them. The Gospels record 33 miracles, most concerning healing and bringing people back to health and life. If people couldn’t find him, Jesus sought them out. In fact, he seemed most comfortable with those who were considered outcasts and sinners, even eating with them, sharing food from the same bowl. This caused religious leaders to criticize and reject him.
Jesus was quick to share the Good News with every person, reminding them of two things: 1) God loves them regardless of the circumstances of their lives and 2) he, Jesus, will show them God’s compassion and heal all who seek his help. Many healings were not just of physical illness, but also of emotional and mental sickness.
The one commandment that Jesus gave was that all who call themselves his disciples must love God and love their neighbor as themselves. The history of the Church is filled with men and women who dedicated their lives to caring for the sick and who built hospitals for those who couldn’t care for themselves.
There is an unfortunate stigma attached to anyone with mental illness. Those who don’t understand or who are afraid may say, often in frustration, “Oh, just shape up and pull yourself together.” But they don’t realize that a serious depression is emotionally paralyzing and physically restrictive. They can’t see that people with deep phobias and anxieties experience such lack of control over their emotions that all they can do is hide and hang on for dear life. It’s an unfair stigma to be sure, and such accusations come from individuals who are either frightened of mental illness or just don’t know what else to say. They may misjudge such persons as weak characters who have no gumption or self-esteem or who are just looking for ways to make other people take care of them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We cannot forget or overlook the burden on so many individuals and families who love someone who is mentally ill. No one knows what families go through in trying to help their loved ones recover. It hurts terribly to see a loved one suffer mentally and emotionally. Fears, frustrations and a sense of helplessness tear at their hearts and strain relationships and resources.
With the availability of the Internet, there are hundreds of Web sites and support groups specifically dedicated to helping individuals and families deal with illnesses like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, anorexia and Alzheimer’s.
What about us? Our best attitude is that of Christ toward the physically and mentally ill: respect and compassion. We must pray for those who experience illness and for those who care for them. The image that comes to mind is that of a person caring for another with Jesus kneeling beside them, holding the towel. Such caregivers are not alone.
Permission to Publish received for this article, “Mental Illness—A Christian Response,” by Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M., from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 7-8-2009.
By: Frank Frost
In a key scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind, John Nash (Russell Crowe) arrives home late one night without explaining where he’s been and, in a state of panic, insists that his wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), move to her sister’s house for safety. The circumstances are so unnerving that Alicia seeks professional help. The next time she sees John, he’s in the hospital, and Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer) is explaining to her that John has schizophrenia.
■ Where and when in your life have you encountered persons with mental illness?
■ Has your attitude about persons with mental illness been what you’d call “Christian”? What about your actions toward them?
■ What will you do to encourage your parish to offer better support to those living with mental illness, their loved ones and caregivers?
A Beautiful Mind is a deeply human story that gets inside the mind of a person experiencing delusions. At the same time, the audience is able to feel the tragedy of his condition through seeing its impact on his wife. Before the audience becomes aware that John is ill, his lack of social graces and intense competition with fellow mathematicians are endearing traits that seem to come with genius. So we are shocked when these traits escalate into delusional and destructive behavior.
The movie is based on the true story of John Nash, who, despite his schizophrenia, published groundbreaking concepts that ultimately led to a Nobel Prize. But the real success for John Nash is his long fight to control the schizophrenia that threatened everything important in his life. He readily acknowledges that this could not have happened without the support of his wife. This support does not come without a struggle, however. Soon after his diagnosis, she admits to a friend that she stays with John out of a sense of obligation and that she feels guilt for wanting to leave him, as well as rage against John and against God.
Next time you watch A Beautiful Mind, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Joan McKamey
Editor’s note: Lee came to our attention when she wrote to kindly correct our misuse of the term schizoprehenia in a past issue. Her advocacy for the mentally ill through such efforts makes her an ideal person for this profile.
■ The movie shows us reality from John’s view, so his delusions appear rational. When and how do his delusions become destructive?
■ Is John presented as lovable throughout his illness? How do old friends react to John after his hospitalizations? Do I avoid friends who have suffered mental problems?
“My grandmother said I’m always fighting for the underdog. When something is right, I’m going to stand up for it, especially when it’s my flesh and blood,” says Lee Lembke of her advocacy for the mentally ill. Her son Paul, now 50, has suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder since age 17. Lee says, “At that time they taught that schizophrenia was caused by a lack of mother-child bonding. Imagine the guilt I felt. Now that teaching is obsolete.”
Lee’s love for Paul is evident. She tells Every Day Catholic, “When we tell others about Paul, they often say that they have a child like that but they don’t talk about it. That’s so sad. It’s treating them like they’re someone to be ashamed of, not loved. My son isn’t invisible. I love my son. I want to advocate for him and others with this terrible disease.” She speaks with pride of Paul’s intelligence, musical abilities, insight and faith.
Lee has had to adjust her hopes for Paul. She says, “Over the years I had so many hopes: Maybe this medicine will work. Maybe he’ll come out of it. Some do.” Paul has lived on the streets and in the mountains. He’s been in a state hospital 10-15 times. But now, Lee says, “My son is warm, has his driver’s license, lives in an apartment and has a case manager who checks on him. It’s not what I would like for my son, but he’s not in an institution or jail or on the streets. He knows his family loves him.”
Lee credits her close friendships, Church and faith for helping her. She says, “Somebody always got in touch to let me know how he was doing, what was going on. I see God at work in that.” Lee’s favorite Scripture passage is “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). She says, “I’ve leaned on that a lot.”
Of her advocacy work, Lee says, “I’m not silent about it. I’ve been an advocate for the mentally ill with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), attended meetings and seminars, run petition drives, lobbied. I’ve been on the local advisory council. I try to correct misinformation. I wrote a couple newspaper articles. I’ve been involved on the state level with CSAA (Central Service Area Authority) in Montana.
“I also advocate by being open with friends and neighbors. I’ll walk into a mental health hospital and sit down and play cards with the patients. I acknowledge them as people. That’s one important way I work to dispel the stigma. I also support others who’ve been through the same thing. Support is advocacy.”
Lee offers advice for those whose loved one has been diagnosed with a mental illness: “Don’t blame yourself! Get as much information on the illness as you can. Get involved in a support group like NAMI. Never give up on them. Always love them and be there for them. Hate the disease but love the person.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
Joyce rocks frantically in her rocking chair, whispering repeatedly, “Deliver me from this despair....” Depression has been her companion since adolescence, plaguing her with periods of profound sadness. The loving support from her husband and family never completely consoles or heals her. Joyce has all the ingredients for happiness, yet she cannot shake her sadness.
For many of us, depression is a chronic mental illness. Children and adults fall victim to this gray cloud that robs them of joy. While painful for the victim, depression affects entire families as they struggle to keep vigil and maintain healthy family life. It won’t “just go away.”
Friends and family members need to be aware of some early signs of depression: There’s a feeling of hopelessness; the future looks bleak. This may be accompanied by a loss of interest in activities that one formerly enjoyed. The depressed person may be unable to concentrate on simple tasks. There may be weight gain or loss of appetite. Sluggishness or being keyed-up can also indicate depression. Another sign is excessive sleep or insomnia. In general, a dramatic change in behavior signals that it’s time to find help.
Psychotherapy and antidepressant medication are often combined to manage the illness. Encouragement and support can play a major role in recovery. Loved ones must learn about causes, symptoms and treatments. It’s vital to realize that we cannot fix the situation; our job is to be a strong support, good friend and listener.
Don’t be an enabler by covering up or making excuses for the depressed person’s behavior. Facing the issues brought on by this illness can be the impetus a depressed person needs for seeking help.
This illness is tough on everyone involved, so we must be kind to ourselves as we support our depressed loved one. We must not take spiteful or hateful words and actions personally; it’s the illness talking, not the person we love. Seeking lighthearted people and events will help to keep one’s own frame of mind positive.
Two years have passed. Joyce remembers that night in the rocking chair. She still has down times. Yet her prayers have been answered: She’s been delivered from debilitating despair. She isn’t making promises, but Joyce has a little flame of hope burning within her spirit. That flame is fanned by the love that surrounds her.
By: Jeanne Hunt
(for praying alone or with others)
Preparation: Place 2” sections of fringe (one for each participant), an open Bible and a lighted candle on a prayer table.
To touch the hem of your garment is all we ask, Jesus. Like the bleeding woman, we are convinced that just a touch will restore health. Body, soul and mind hold a gentle balance of well-being. We place all three in your hands. Amen.
“There Is a Balm in Gilead” (or other suitable hymn)
(Play some quiet music.)
Mental illness touches all of our lives in some way. Perhaps it affects someone you know, or you may struggle yourself. Let us pray now for the healing touch of the Divine One.
Touch and heal us, Lord.
For the angry, the discouraged, the fearful, we pray…
For the desperate, the hopeless, the suicidal, we pray…
For the weak, the confused, the frightened, we pray…
For the lost, the emotionally unstable, the delusional, we pray…
For all those who are struggling with diseases of the mind, we pray…
Please come forward and take a piece of fringe. It is symbolic of Jesus’ hem. Keep it as a reminder that he is near and touchable. (As people come forward, sing the Opening Song again.)
Let us go forth now in the company of God to comfort and support those afflicted with any type of mental illness. Amen.