The Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, who is the author of Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness and a Priest Associate at the Episcopal Church at Yale, writes in Tikkun that Christians should not let families of the mentally ill suffer alone in silence:
When people of faith slog through the deep grief of depression, or soar on the erratic joy of hypomania, or get sucked into the cognitive mud of schizophrenia, and the problem is credited to a spiritual defect, we should all be ashamed of ourselves. Here we find a cruel irony: the very community that’s supposed to support mentally ill members ends up perpetuating their isolation and stigma.
A friend of mine told me how her church’s lay pastoral care team would regularly deliver meals to families of ill parishioners in a gesture of care and support, a common practice in many churches. But when her son was first diagnosed with and hospitalized for schizophrenia, the pastoral care team did not reach out to her at all. There is even today an underlying perception that mental illnesses are somehow “contagious” and shameful. The church’s lack of care in this case seems to have been a symptom of a very deep stigma and shame. “No casseroles for schizophrenics,” responded my friend.
Indeed, we in the church perpetuate stigma and fear in our ignorance of psychiatric symptoms. The biblical stories of Jesus and his disciples casting out demons are sometimes used to explain away mental illnesses as demonic possessions. But these same stories can be understood in another more helpful way. The symptoms of mental illness may indeed be like the demons Jesus encountered insofar as they are not the patient herself. The symptoms, like the demons in the story, need to be cast elsewhere, away from the sufferer…
In order for faith communities to be able to care for their parishioners who suffer from mental illnesses with the same support they would give to those living with cancer, we need to draw back the curtain of fear and reveal the face of the person who suffers. Once we personally know someone who is mentally ill, the fear becomes less overwhelming and the stigma becomes less powerful. This is part of the reason why the celebrities with the courage to write and speak publicly of their experiences with mental illness are so important.
Research shows that within Christian denominations, across racial and class divides, clergy are often the first responders for those suffering mental and emotional distress. This may be the case because parishioners are frightened to seek mental health care at all, much less from secular providers. Clergy seem “safer.” Yet clergy are among the most ignorant about mental illnesses within the caring professions.
The full article is available at Tikkun here.