Houston, we have a problem. There’s a social epidemic wreaking havoc on our nation’s people. Unfortunately it’s an issue that remains hidden behind walls of stigma and mask’s of false reality.
Mental illness (don’t click away! Hang with me for a few, pretty please?)
I recently attended The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church at Saddleback in California; (This is bestselling author Rick Warren’s church, in case that rings a bell for you.) I’ve been an advocate for mental health since going through my own recovery for anorexia and anxiety. As a co-leader for my church’s brand new Shattering Stigma mental health ministry, attending this conference was a special opportunity.
- 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness in a given year;
- half of all chronic mental illnesses are diagnosed by age 14; three-quarters by age 24
- Depression is the leading cause of disability in America
- Death by suicide is the second leading cause of death for age groups 15-34; the third leading cause of death for 10-14 year olds; 90% of those deaths are people who had an underlying mental illness.
There are many more numbers, but these paint a grim enough picture of our nation’s problem. What’s really heartbreaking to me is it’s our youngest people who are suffering the most.
What can we do? Saddleback’s message was crystal clear: Rally together as a community, specifically as a faith community, to help those who are suffering. This epidemic will not be solved by professionals. It will not be solved by the government. This issue requires all of us as a church body attacking the problem from the layman level and forming a movement. We’ve done this before for civil rights, women’s rights, and even in the invention of hospitals. We can do this too!
Step 1: We have got to dismantle the walls of stigma surrounding mental illness as a whole.
- Mental illness is not a moral or spiritual problem. Mental disorders are medical conditions in the brain that need special treatment, the same as diabetes, cancer, broken bones, and heart disease. The brain is an organ and it can misfire in function just like the heart, kidneys and lungs. When the brain is treated with proper therapies and/or medications, life for the person living with a mental disorder can return to relatively “normal.” (Ever see someone recover from a heart attack? Well, you are currently reading the blog of a woman who is in the maintenance phase of anorexia recovery. Eating disorders are a type of mental illness.)
- Mental illness does not discriminate. Every race, every socio-economic level, every profession, every level of education, every gender, and every age is susceptible to a mental disorder. Everyone can break a bone; everyone can experience a broken brain.
- People living with mental illness are NOT to be feared! The media is really good at convincing us that people with mental illness are scary and dangerous. Did you know that a mentally ill person is 10 times more likely to be a victim of violence than perpetrating violence? It’s fact, my friends… straight from the mouth of Chief Yost Zakhary who is a leader in our nation’s law enforcement and public safety sector.
Ignore the media and look at it this way: are you scared of cancer patients? We are so good at supporting our cancer-stricken warriors and families. But for our fellow neighbor with an anxiety disorder or a child with schizophrenia or a spouse with bipolar disorder, we tend to tip-toe around them. Usually we don’t know what do and fear making the situation worse somehow.
Here’s the truth: the same way you would help a friend in his/her cancer battle is the same way you can help someone in his/her mental crisis (whether their own or that of a family member, such as a child, spouse, niece/nephew, etc): bring a meal, send a card, sit down over tea, knit a shawl, drive to an appointment, recommend resources, listen to them talk, run a marathon that supports the foundation supporting the diagnosis, etc. And when your friend seems to be doing well, check in to make sure: “Hey, how are you feeling these days? You doing alright?” Be ready in case the answer is, “I’m struggling.”
Friends, the mental health crisis in our country needs serious attention–our young people and their families need help. The church has an opportunity here to lead a movement that scoops up a group people suffering in the margins of our culture and into the arms of divine Hope. But change cannot happen if we’re still dancing around the mighty walls of stigma built with myths that mental illness is scary, is a sin, is demon possession, is a moral problem, and/or is an excuse to “mooch off the system.”
Let’s transform thinking and get educated on the truths of mental illness.
Resources to get started:
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–His good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2 (NIV)