Lynelle Saunders, Director of the Racine Friendship Clubhouse, an adult day center for people living with mental illness, joined us in worship and spoke to us about mental illness. Not only did she impart valuable information about local resources, but she shared her story as a woman living with bi-polar disorder. Lynelle is a shining example of someone who has tackled her disease head on and has determined to live life to its fullest. Has this always been easy for her? No. But she gives hope for all those who struggle. (For the complete audio of her sermon, click here.)
Lynelle was hesitant to discuss the “stigma” surrounding mental illness, preferring to be optimistic. She believes the stigmas will gradually disappear as the younger generation seems to be more understanding, accepting and open-minded than older generations. I hope and pray that she is right. But, sadly, there is still a “stigma” that we, as spiritual people who recognize the sacred worth of each human being, must learn to look beyond and overcome. We need to learn to be supportive communities that are not afraid of, nor condemning of, nor condescending of people with mental illness
For the record, I do not struggle with mental illness (though some of you may choose to differ). I have, however, had many, many experiences with people who live – sometimes well, and sometimes not so well – with mental illness. I’m saddened by the shame and embarrassment people feel around their diagnosis. Why is it “ok” to have diabetes, or heart disease, but not mental illness? Why can we talk about cancer, fibromyalgia and high blood pressure, but not depression and bi-polar disorder? Why do people not even feel safe opening up about their mental health issues in church settings?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health,
“Mental disorders are common in the United States and internationally. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people. Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion — about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 — who suffer from a serious mental illness… Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. Nearly half (45 percent) of those with any mental disorder meet criteria for 2 or more disorders…“
Mental illness affects a huge number of people. Certainly it is time we set them free from the stigma of being “crazy.” These are chemical imbalances in the brain, most of which are treatable and manageable. Perhaps more people would be willing to get the help they need if families, communities and friends were more accepting and understanding. Perhaps education about the symptoms would lead us away from the clichés that don’t work for people with mental illness. You know the ones … “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”… “you just have to work harder”…”get off your lazy ass and get a job”… “there’s nothing wrong with you, it’s all in your head.”
We need to be careful with our words. Be careful not to pre-judge. Be willing to be educated about mental health issues. Be a loving, compassionate, caring presence with people who struggle.