Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Health
...though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. (Galatians 4:14)
Recently, I read a story from a pastor, Rev. Martie McMane, whose mother had a "nervous breakdown" when McMane was a teenager. She writes, "In reality, my mother had a psychotic episode, a complete break with reality, with hallucinations, paranoid ideation, incredible surges of physical strength and aggression that could not be subdued. 'Nervous breakdown' was the euphemism used in those days." (from the UCC Mental Health Network Resource Guide)
It turned out the episode was caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain due to a rapid decrease in estrogen. With treatment and medication, her mother fully recovered and never had another episode again. Now for the rest of the story.
Her mother was a hairdresser. After she returned to work, some of her regular clients stopped coming to her, clients she had known for years and years. Again, McMane writes,
If she had been in the hospital with a malfunctioning pancreas causing out of control diabetes, or a malfunctioning heart causing a heart attack would they have refused to let her do their hair? Probably not. But she had had a malfunctioning brain.
This is a glaring example of the stigma which surrounds mental illness, and while this story may have happened years ago, the stigma remains. Our society has done a terrible job understanding and accepting differences in brain function. We shun them, talk about them in hushed tones, make jokes about mental health, and look upon those who struggle with mental health issues as weak or dangerous. The result is that those who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues do not seek help but rather hide their struggles out of fear they will be treated like Rev. McMane's mother.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul noted his "physical infirmity" which the church looked past. We do not know what that infirmity was, but how uplifting to know Paul was not treated with scorn or despised but rather, "welcomed...as an angel of God."
As the church, the body of Christ, we must ask are we welcoming all our neighbors as "angels of God," even those with mental health issues? It is far past time to move past the stigma of mental health and welcome and love our neighbor as ourselves.
May is Mental Health Awareness month. Look for ways that you can learn more about mental health and be sure to take the time to care for your own mental (and spiritual) well-being. And join us Sunday, May 1, for Mental Health Sunday.