Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why the stigma?

Why don't people within the church feel comfortable discussing mental health issues?

I think a major reason is that people don't understand mental illness enough to be able to talk about it. They need education. The problem is, they often don't want to be educated. Often it is fear. People fear what they don't understand and they can't get beyond the block that creates.

In churches and in Christian writing the reason for emotional problems has frequently - very frequently - been attributed to spiritual problems. A person attending a Living Room group recently told us of how - when she told her pastor that she was being treated for depression - he told her to "praise the Lord and you will feel better." Instead of receiving compassion, he gave her the message that all she needed to do was to turn to God. In other words, if her relationship with God was better, she would not be depressed. It was as though he was blaming her for the depression.

Illnesses like depression are too often not recognized as the diseases they are. If the problem is emotional it is believed that it is within our own power to change. If the problem is within our mind, it is believed it is our own fault. People have trouble understanding that the brain is an organ and, like any other organ of our body, something can go wrong with it. This affects our feelings, our thinking, and our behavior. This is what people - especially Christians - need to understand.

How are we going to change this faulty thinking?

I think that what would help would be for church congregations to hear testimonies from people with mental illness. They need to hear stories that illustrate the medical nature of their disease. They need to hear that people can be good Christians while, at the same time, dealing with mental health issues.

Stigma within the church is the most damaging, more so than stigma within secular society. This is because a person's faith in God comes into question. When a person is struggling with mental illness, the worst thing for him to hear is that his relationship with God is at fault or that it's the devil causing the emotional turmoil.

The church, as the body of Christ with its message of His unconditional love, is in the best position to help people with mental illness. Christians are in the best position to give Christ-like support. This is the kind of support we who suffer expect from them. This kind of support will help us keep the faith we so badly need. But Christians need to educate themselves; they need to learn to understand; they need to be compassionate and not judge.


moonlightwriter said...

I couldn't agree more!!

CP said...

I can tell you that it isn't much better in the Jewish faith. I have bipolar disorder, mild schizophrenia and epilepsy. None of these are ever to be discussed within my household. They are all stigmas that get swept under the carpet, hushed up and never spoken about. Even my epilepsy, a true medical malady (if you don't buy the fact that bipolar disorder is a disease) is not spoken about. There is something wrong with a person who has seizures that is taboo. The women in my family, the Jewish gossipers, they love to whisper about it, but it is not something that is learned or discussed by members of the family...setting my life back about 200 years.

Good article.


marja said...

Moonlightwriter: Welcome back! It has been such a very long time. Thank you for your comment.

CP: There's something so very wrong when someone suffers from a disease and is made to suffer even more because of the stigma. I'm very sorry that you have to keep this - something you should receive loving support for - a secret.

This angers me terribly. Something needs to be done. In Canada a Mental Health Commission has been set up to fight stigma and discrimination. Let's hope they are able to make a difference.

In my next post I will copy a letter sent to me by a member of this commission in response to an article I had published recently.