Living with Mental Illness

The only time I have ever been seriously depressed was when I was pregnant with our oldest child.  I was so sick that I was hospitalized twice and had to take a 3 month leave from my job as Director of Music in a United Methodist Church.  Not feeling well enough to leave my bed for much of that time, I grew more and more despondent until I finally said to Gary, “I think I need to see a counselor.  I’m not able to cope with this anymore.”  I was eventually able to return to work but will never forget the feeling of utter darkness and hopelessness that pervaded my life for a time.

My brief bout with situational depression was mild compared with those who experience debilitating clinical depression and other diseases of the mind.  Mental illness is no respecter of age, profession, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, or sexual orientation.  Even clergy suffer from mental illness.

  • According to the Surgeon General, in any given year one in every five Americans experiences a mental disorder.  Half of all Americans have such disorders at some time in their lives. 
  • Approximately one in 17 persons lives with a serious mental illness.   
  • One in five U.S. service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffers from major depression or combat stress (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
  • Fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children who live with mental health needs receive any level of treatment in any one year.
  • One out of every five community hospital stays involves a primary or secondary diagnosis of mental illness.  (Statistics taken from www.MentalHealthMinistries.net)

In 1990 the U.S. Congress established the first week in October as Mental Health Awareness Week as a way of recognizing the efforts of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which is the largest grassroots education and advocacy agency for mental illness in our country.  The National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding is tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 4.

Children, youth, and adults with mental disorders live in every village, town, and city in our country.  Those disorders include Autism Spectrum Disorders, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Dissociative Disorders, Dual Diagnosis and Integrated Treatment of Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Disorder, Eating Disorders, Major Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder, Schizophrenia, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Suicide, and Tourette’s Syndrome. 

Mental illness has been in my family for at least several generations.   The same is very likely the case in your family as well.  I have learned much about mental disorders over the years from the close contact I have had with both family members and parishioners. 

Many mental illnesses go unrecognized and untreated.  Some people are simply born with brains that are wired differently than “normal” brains.  Other mental disorders develop from a traumatic event, military service, or sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.  We know how to treat a broken arm or an ear infection, but we aren’t always able to identify the cause of classroom disruption, an inability to get homework done, intense sadness, or peculiar behavior patterns.  Because mental disorders are often difficult to diagnose, we end up labeling others as lazy, slow, difficult, or stupid.   

Mental illness still carries a stigma in our country.   How often do we describe people as loony, nuts, crazy, mad, or a lunatic when in reality they have a mental illness?  How often are persons with mental illness fired from jobs because employers do not understand their behavior?  When was the last time you heard this prayer concern from the pulpit on Sunday morning?  “Jean would like to ask for your prayers because she could not afford to have her medicine for bipolar disorder refilled, triggering a major depressive episode, and she is now hospitalized in the psych unit of the local hospital.”  Because of our tendency to judge those with a mental illness, it is imperative to protect their privacy unless they are willing to “go public.”  Those who have the courage and support to be open about their disorder are paving the way for mental illness to be accepted and treated.

Mental illness can create a ripple effect that further destabilizes people who are already at risk.  At times mental illness leads to substance abuse, criminal activity, and even suicide.  When people suffering from mental illness do not take their medications regularly, cannot afford them, or struggle to find the medication or a dosage that works, job performance and ability to function normally may be affected.  Persons with mental illness must live with the consequences of their actions, but treatment and support helps them to live productive lives.

Tragically, millions of people in our country are not able to receive the inpatient or outpatient care they need because of inadequate or nonexistent heath care coverage for mental illness.  The impassioned advocacy of those committed to equal rights for people with mental disorders has prompted many health care plans to improve their coverage, but change is slow.  Why should inpatient coverage for a mental illness only receive partial coverage when physical illnesses are covered at 100% (after deductibles)?   

Mental illness takes a toll on the families of those who have mental disorders.  The challenge of living with erratic, unpredictable behavior, uncertainty, disruption of family life, and fear of what will happen next can be overwhelming, not to mention the financial burden.  When any of us go through hard times, we often emerge from the darkness because of the support and encouragement of other people.  Support groups abound for dozens of different physical diseases.  However, families of those diagnosed with mental illness are often isolated and keep their pain to themselves in order to protect their loved one’s privacy. 

What role can the church play in mental illness?  According to Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder, a United Methodist pastor who is Coordinator of Mental Health Ministries for the California Pacific Conference, (www.MentalHealthMinistries.net),  “One in four persons sitting in our pews has a family member struggling with mental health issues.  60% of individuals with a mental health issue go first to a spiritual leader for help.  Studies show that clergy are the least effective in providing appropriate support and referral information.  Our faith communities can be a caring congregation for persons living with a mental illness and their family members.”

  • The church has a responsibility to promote understanding of a God who has fearfully and wonderfully created every human being as a unique one of a kind individual, including those with mental disorders or disabilities of any kind.  There is no such thing as a “normal” human being, and mental illness is a treatable disease.
  • The church can dispel stereotypes about mental illness as well as caution against equating mental illness with sin, seeing mental disorders as a moral failing rather than as an illness, insisting that the mentally ill just “snap out of it,” or believing that the only cure for mental illness is an exorcism.  Yes, I’ve actually heard all of the above.  No one chooses to be depressed. 
  • Churches can offer classes about mental illness, form support groups for those with mental illness and their family members, and minister to the special needs of returning soldiers and their families.  Clergy need to become informed about mental illness in order to be more effective and in pastoral care. 
  • Exclusion can take many forms.  People with mental illnesses should be included in every aspect in every aspect of congregational life.  They are creative, faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who desire to offer their gifts to God and the church.

I have been inspired and blessed by the strength, courage, and perseverance of people with mental illness.  Every person I have known who has a mental illness is my hero.  Battling demons of the mind and often suffering in silence, they are determined, resilient survivors whose life experience can foster outstanding leadership.  Despair and tough challenges do not frighten them, for they have already faced darkness head on and have developed a character which grounds them in reality as well as hope.  In addition, I have tremendous respect for physicians, therapists, and caregivers who devote their lives to understanding mental illness and treat their patients with sensitivity and compassion. 

In the words of First Lady Rosalynn Carter, a great advocate for mental illness, “People with mental problems are our neighbors.  They are members of our congregations, members of our families; they are everywhere in this country.  If we ignore their cries for help, we will be continuing to participate in the anguish from which those cries for help come.  A problem of this magnitude will not go away.  Because it will not go away, and because of our spiritual commitments, we are compelled to take action.”

The United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries, a program of UMCOR Health, offers resources for congregations that can improve their ability to recognize and respond to mental illness.  Click here to view and print the Mental Illness Awareness Toolkit.

On Tuesday I invite you to take a few minutes to pray for those with mental illness and ask God to increase your awareness of their needs and gifts.

Blessings, Laurie

5 thoughts on “Living with Mental Illness

  1. Hi Laurie, The facts are overwhelming on mental illness. We have a grandson with ADHD. He is on medication, but he is repeating the 1st grade. Hopefully this will help. I am glad that we recognize the fact that not all brains are wired the same. When I was in school the kids were labeled trouble makers. We have come a ways, but certainly have a long way to go. Thanks for the information.
    God Bless
    Sharon Buys

  2. About 20 years ago I read an article that said 75% of all clergy surveyed reported major depression at least once in their career. I thought, “No way! This is a great job!” Four years ago I had one child move to Germany and another graduate and leave home. I turned 50 and became a grandfather that year, too. I also moved from a 13 year appointment to a new church that was saddled with financial issues and conflict. I became a home owner for the first time and then the housing market and the economy tanked. I had two sons-in-law and a son in Iraq or Afghanistan (it is hard to keep the deployments straight sometimes). All of that converged at about the same time and I went into a terrible depression. I can’t really describe it. It ended up being the worst year and half of my life. Eventually, with help, I made my way through it. Life is much different now. I cannot imagine living that way all the time as I could hardly cope and now it seems like a distant memory. My situation has changed but I have a new understanding of those who live with depression constantly.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am part of a family where we are trying to break the “cycle” of depression, and the more that people talk about it, the more it is understood. No one is exempt from the possibility of experiencing a mental illness; there is no immunization. As you said, this is one of the areas that insurance/health care coverage really needs to move into the 21st century on!

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