May is Mental Health Awareness month, and what better way for us to reveal God’s compassion during this Year of Mercy than to become more aware of and embrace the people we encounter who suffer from mental illness.
People with mental illness sometimes behave in ways we can’t comprehend. Those with severe depression sometimes stay in bed all day, unable to manage the most basic motivation to move. People with anxiety disorders can be gripped by irrational or even unidentifiable fears that don’t incapacitate others. Those affected by psychotic disorders may see things that aren’t real, hear voices that don’t exist, and sometimes lose the ability to discern reality at all. Sometimes people with mental illness mistreat or hurt the people they love—or themselves. Some who need medication stop taking it or won’t start. Some who seem to be doing well suddenly start showing symptoms again. Whatever the mental health crisis, members of our family of faith are called to be good stewards and embrace these vulnerable brothers and sisters, as Jesus did.
When people see symptoms of mental illness in others there is a tendency to distance themselves, ignore them and hope someone else will help, even in our parish communities. One weary mom lamented: “When a family member suffers from cancer or other diseases, people send cards, visit and bring a casserole. If your family member suffers from a mental illness, there is no contact or support.” This mother’s feeling of abandonment is regrettable and suggests that our family of faith has no tolerance or empathy for this kind of suffering. But the parish community is the Body of Christ. It cannot leave the impression that Christ himself is ready to walk away from those who carry these burdens.
As stewards of Christ’s love and mercy, we are called to follow his example, to reach out to those who suffer, even those who suffer mentally and emotionally; to embrace them rather than shrink away. No one is beyond hope, past the point where God’s grace touches them. We are not called to have all the answers or understand all the mysteries of mental illness. But we are called to love. That is the disciple’s response.
When we encounter mental illness among family members, friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners, what should we do?
- Seek understanding instead of passing judgment. Mental illness is a disease, one we may not initially understand.
- Get more information—read a book, do some research online, or perhaps even attend a workshop sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Resist the temptation to believe that people in treatment have all their needs met; mental health professionals can’t be expected to provide all the needs of one in treatment. It takes a community to provide acceptance, spiritual guidance and compassion.
- Offer positive support and be sensitive to those seeking medical intervention
- Be silent if you don’t know what to say—but be there for and merciful to those with mental illness.
- If you’re not a mental-health professional, acknowledge your limitations but remember no professional qualifications are required to be friendly and kind or to enter into a supportive friendship.
- Offer the dignity of a handshake and a smile, companionship and perhaps even friendship.
- Remember in your prayers those who suffer from mental illness, their families, caregivers and mental-health professionals.
This article has been adapted from a reflection by Mary Ann Otto, Stewardship Director, Diocese of Green Bay, WI