Saturday, February 12, 2011

The best anti-stigma tactic

On February 9th the Vancouver Sun published an article on the difficulties of removing the stigma of mental illness. Amongst other things, he wrote about the World Psychiatric Associations anti-stigma pilot program conducted in 1996. The program tried out various approaches but found that although people became better informed about the biological basis of mental disorders, their attitude did not change significantly.

Some of the things McKnight does report about the program's findings are very encouraging to me and make me realize that perhaps I'm on the right track with my personal efforts to reduce stigma amongst Christians.

McKnight writes:
"...the pilot program found that by far the most effective way to change attitudes was to engage people in an emotional experience, and the best way to do that was to establish contact between people with mental illness and other members of the public."

"'s important for members of the public not simply to have contact with psychiatric patients, but to see and hear from successful members of the community who have battled mental illness. ...most members of the public only see mentally ill people when something negative happens, and this is something anti-stigma campaigns must counter.

"Beyond that, the research suggests that campaigns are most effective when they're relatively small, manageable and sustainable, and when they're targeted to a specific audience. Different groups of people differ in their attitudes, after all, hence the best programs are ones designed to address specific attitudes."

This points out to me how important it is for Christians who have - or have had - mental illness to be open about it and educate their church families. Those who are doing well in life would especially be doing a great service if they would tell about the struggles they've had with mental illness.

But, given the stigma that exists, this takes courage. There is always the danger of alienating your Christian friends, especially those who harbour a deeply ingrained stigma or belief about mental illness. It takes a person who is passionate about making the world a better place for those who suffer with mental disorders. It takes compassionate people who want to see these people benefit from a loving and accepting Christian attitude. It takes someone who cares enough to make it possible for suffering people to be encouraged - not discouraged - in their faith.

Are you one of these people? Are you a respected member of your church community who has in the past lived with mental illness? Do you want to take part in making the world a better place?

Tell your story to your church family. Once you've made the topic an ok one, you'd be surprised how many people will come out of the woodwork.


Anonymous said...

As I went through mental illness with my young son, we did not know what was happening and we were alienated and misunderstood by our church family. (He has Bipolar among other things).

In the process, my own mental illness developed. It would be 10 years before treatment came.

When I had significant healling through medication, very few in the church would be open enough to hear about it, or if they did, to believe it.

My isolation in the church caused deep pain and I am passionately longing to help change the body of Christ to ensure this doesn't happen to anyone else.

Your blog is dead-on and I am strengthened and encouraged by reading it.

Another way to battle stigma is sharing our stories individually as opportunities arise within the body.

I have many desires including wanting to start Living Room here, but am praying and waiting for His timing.

Thank you for being here for me and others like me!

marja said...

Anonymous: Thank you for your comment. This morning I wondered whether I had come on too strong in this post. Your comment encouraged me to believe that perhaps I hadn't. As you point out, for sure we could start out by sharing with individuals - with our church friends. I also believe we should share with our pastors and help them understand. There's nothing like having the support of our pastors.

So neat that you're considering starting a Living Room group where you are. When the timing is right, you will know. And you will be blessed, as I'm blessed by the work.

Nancie said...

Dear Marja,

It is sad that there is still such a terrible stigma associated with depression and other mental health issues. I especially feel it here in Singapore but thank God that our Ministry of Health has been taking steps to educate the public by doing documentary about these conditions and making it known that they are treatable. Nevertheless it is still going to take a long while for the general public to accept that.

Sadly the church family sometimes has even greater misunderstanding about mental health issues and many choose to suffer in silence rather than be rejected or misunderstood. It takes a lot of courage indeed to share about our struggles with depression.

I am thankful to God for helping my church to grow in their understanding and to be more compassionate. I have seen their changes and I am thankful that now I have brethren who loves me and support me through my episodes. I speak openly about my condition whenever I have the opportunity.

Guess what? Another journalist who wrote for a young people's magazine just approached me for an interview! I am so thankful to God that I have another opportunity to share my experiences and the testimony of His goodness. Hope some may find peace and help in Him.

Take care. May God continue to bless the ministry of Living Room and help many others in need.

With love and prayers,

marja said...

Hi Nancie,

I'm glad your church is becoming more understanding and compassionate. And that's probably because you've been open about what you deal with and educating them. I find the same thing at my church.

So good that you're being interviewed again!! You're becoming quite a stigma buster, friend.

Take care.

Liz said...

Hi Marja,

I also relate to what you say on the post. We were confused when my brother started having the symptoms of a mental illness. It was three and half years before he started some treatment. We asked for some help at first but as we were aware of what caused his behaviour, we started to be silent about it at church. I didn’t like to be ashamed about it but at the same time, it was painful to be looked at in a different way sometimes or be misunderstood.

Thank God we could ask our pastor and he was very understanding about it and gave us good advice. He has supported us whenever he had the chance. I’m also thankful for the few people at church that listened and showed compassion to us. Some had prejudices and some just didn’t know what to do.

Right now my brother is starting to go to church again. People see he’s different but it’s like we all have fear to say the name of it. He doesn’t want to say anything now. Anyway I think ignorance is what avoid people from knowing how to treat him. A lot of people have been nice, even if they don’t know and that’s great. I also speak about it to some people I trust when I have the chance.

Some doctors have told us that it’s a taboo thing in a stronger way here in Spain and even some people don’t say a word about it and go find treatment in other countries. I wish those people could be free to speak about what is happening to them. And I truly believe Jesus care for people who are ill and doesn’t reject them for it.

It really encourages seeing people who have gone through it and are living better lives. I found hope reading your story and your blog and also when I read Jaci Velasquez’s story. She was one of my favourite singers and when she spoke openly about her illness it was encouraging. I wish that we all can do something about it and help those who suffer the way we can. Thanks for your post and for being honest once again.

marja said...

Hi Liz,

I'm sorry it's still so hard in Spain to talk about mental illness. But I'm hopeful that your country will start following the path we have in Canada. The media is often talking about mental illness and trying to inform people. I pray that, with time, the same will happen in Spain.

Keep sharing with the people you can trust. That's a great way to start reducing stigma.

I'm so glad that your brother finds it possible to go to church again and that people are treating him well.

Take care,

Sarah said...

I suffer from depression and have in the past suffered from anorexia. I try to be open about my struggle with mental illness. It isn't always easy and does leave you open to being hurt and judged by other Christians. However, the church needs to change it's attitudes and I know this will only happen if people are willing to talk about mental illness. It's something I'm willing to fight for.

marja said...

Good for you, Sarah. I'm glad you're not afraid to fight for what is right. You're a true sister in Christ. And, though that giant stigma is so strong, with God's help we can overcome. I often think of young David slaying Goliath. He could not have done that without the courage that God instilled in him. He could not have done that without his trust that God was with him. We can do the same. Reducing stigma is God's work and with Him everything is possible.