Stereotypes of Mental Illness

Mental illness has taken the forefront of minds and discussion this week for some Christians because well-known Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren’s son committed suicide over the past weekend. There has been a renewed interest in the stigma of mental illness among churches of all denominations, which is wonderful because even in supposedly “loving” communities or families, of Christian belief, opinions have become “fact” and there are definite lines in the sand about what it means to have a mental illness.

Before you claim that you don’t know anyone who suffers from this, think a minute.  Many of those people sit next to you at work every day. They sit next to you at the dinner table. And they certainly sit next to you in church!

Mental illness is something that I champion release from because I have suffered from it myself for most of my life. I have also dealt with debilitating anxiety and panic, so while I do not for one moment consider myself an expert, I do consider myself an advocate. Today I read a Washington Post article about Warren’s son, and felt the paper did a great job of covering the angle concerning Christians and their stereotypes of those with diseases like depression and anxiety.

One of the reasons many Christians take issue with the term “mental illness” is because we believe in faith healing. Healing from “demons” in the New Testament really meant, according to some Christians, evil spirits invading the body or mind of a person, and I am inclined to agree. Therefore, they believe the ultimate source of healing from problems in our bodies and minds comes from the Lord. I am also inclined to agree.

But there are different ways to heal from mental illness – therapy and medicinal drugs are also helpful for some people. Someone very close to me once said that if I only prayed harder, I would not have depression or anxiety, and that relying on drugs to eliminate theses disorders proved my faith was weak. In truth, I had spent years begging God for healing and it was not alleviated in any way! Also, God heals on His timetable, not ours. I am experiencing healing from God, by the way. But I have struggled with these disorders for eighteen years! Not to mention that drugs do not always completely heal you from mental illness; sometimes they simply mask the symptoms or improve them so that you can function more normally.

Others, both secular and non-secular, have suffered from depression, for example, after a divorce or death in their lives, but only for a set amount of time. I call that “situational depression” because after an arbitrary period of time, it passes. It is just as damaging as chronic depression, however, and can lead to suicide as well. People tormented with this experience the same problems as those with chronic depression, and such was the case of the partially well-meaning person who believed a weak faith was the cause of my own depression. I’d call that a bit of ridiculousness.

Another facet of this issue is that there are many Christians, and many secular people, who do not believe mental illness is real. Herein lies the problem. It’s not just that they don’t like to talk about it, which is the case often for baby boomers and their parents. Many people just do not believe that depression or anxiety exists. Someone of this persuasion suggested to me once that if I were to change my perspective,  my mood would improve.

There is some debate out there, even among medical professionals in the field, about common diseases like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, for example. Some believe that synapses in the brain do not receive neurons from receptors the way they should, resulting in mental illness, while some believe it comes from other sources, but none of them disagree that mental illness is real. It amazes me that people who are not smart enough to be doctors believe people suffering from mental illness are just fooling themselves. Clearly, we are not.

The two people who expressed dissenting opinions in my case both have people in their families who have their own mental illness, so I think sometimes people just want to deny that somebody else has it now too. I suppose I can understand that. It doesn’t change anything, though, except to make them callous towards those who are sick. Mental illness is not a mood or a phase created by the person himself. It is a disease, like cancer or diabetes.

As for my attitude? At the time these comments were made, I was hurt and angry, but I have experienced ignorance many times in my life. However, those words, aimed at people who do not have a strong faith in God and who do not see the light at the end of the tunnel can cause serious consequences. So I urge those of you who know people with these diseases to arm yourselves with knowledge instead of crass judgments or careless words. The people you sling those barbs at, whether in anger and frustration or simply unintelligence, could be irrevocably hurt by your naivete.