The quietest, loneliest and most painful illness
Rev. John Zehring
April 24, 2019
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God…” (Psalm 42:11 NRSV)
Mental Health Awareness? Those who suffer from mental health issues are so aware that there is hardly a moment of the day when it does not dominate their thoughts. For roughly 20 percent of the American population (over 46 million people), mental illness can be a living hell for them, their caregivers, family and friends.
Mental illness has touched my family, and perhaps yours has experienced it too. The list of celebrities, athletes, writers, artists, professionals, and everyday people who have experienced it seems endless. Do a quick internet search for famous people with mental illness to discover many others who share this dark valley. In history, those who may have had a mental health condition include Abraham Lincoln, Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Leo Tolstoy, and Isaac Newton.
It is the loneliest of diseases. Mental illness – like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and panic disorder – touches so many lives. It does not care about how much education you have, how well raised you were, how much money you’ve got, how successful you’ve been, what kind of person you are, or where you go to church.
It is the quietest of illnesses. Sometimes we do not know we have it. Or, we do not acknowledge it. We do not talk about it much. We do not want to. Few people know or understand. Yet the hurting is profound, confusing, and lonely.
Mental illness is the loneliest and quietest of illnesses. Sometimes we do not know we have it. Or, we do not acknowledge it. We do not talk about it much. We do not want to. Few people know or understand. Yet the hurting is profound, confusing, and lonely.
If you have cared for a member of your family or a friend who suffers from mental illness, you have probably considered that any physical illness seems preferable to a mental illness. With a physical illness, people visit, they send cards, bring meals, offer prayers, and demonstrate their care, support and attention. But with a mental illness, you do not know what is happening, where it is going, and you are not completely sure that maybe it is not something you did. What will people think? And so, you build walls and keep it closed up inside, where it is so very lonely.
Thankfully the stigma is declining, but it is still present. The stigma is one of the greatest enemies to mental health awareness. Stigma is an illness too. Let us, people of God, pledge ourselves to slaying that awful giant of stigma. Wherever we can, let us become healers of this illness so that all God’s sheep may enjoy an abundant life.
Consider three realities about mental illness.
First, mental illness is a disease, not a failure of character and not a failure of faith. Scientists are discovering that brain disorders are largely a matter of genetics and biochemistry. Eric Kandel, MD, a Nobel Prize laureate and professor of brain science at Columbia University, believes it’s all about biology. “All mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases,” he says. “The brain is the organ of the mind. Where else could mental illness be if not in the brain?” Mental illness is a disease. It is not your fault. You did not do anything wrong. It is not a result of your upbringing. It is not a consequence of poor choices, being stupid, a bad attitude, or not being able to get your act together. Mental illness is not a failure of your faith. The fact that you cannot pull yourself out of the hole is not a reflection of your weakness. When you pray to get better and you do not, it is not a sign that God does not care. When you have deep, dark thoughts that you cannot tell anyone about, it is not because you did something bad or because you are a bad person. God is not mad at you. God is not trying to teach you a lesson. God is not trying to punish you. The loving Parent that Jesus taught about does not work that way.
Second, mental illness can be managed. It might not get cured, but it can become managed. Through new discoveries in therapies and prescription drugs, many people with mental illness are able to live satisfying, effective, successful, and even happy lives. There is hope. With help, life can become not only possible but pleasurable. And yet, some with mental illness do not seek help, for a number of reasons. There is denial. Some believe that they are quite independent and they will fix what is broken themselves. Some resist admitting that they have a problem that needs help. Some have a lack of hope in the mental health profession. Some wonder if the path to recovery is paved with unending medical bills. Not all insurance policies cover mental illness, and most that do only cover a part. And yet, many with mental illnesses have sought professional help and they are managing well. That is one of the keys: understanding that you do not necessarily get rid of it, but you learn to manage. There is hope and there is help. Mental illness can benefit significantly if treated.
Third, what works with regular depression may not work with clinical depression. Most people get depressed. These folks tell themselves, “Come on, pick yourself up. Bolster your attitude. Get a life. Change your attitude. You can do it.” Clinically depressed people may try to say those things too, but nothing happens. Then, they may blame themselves or feel that their faith is too weak or they just figure that faith does not work. Faith does not banish clinical depression, any more than it banishes cancer, canker sores or cataracts. “You can’t ‘pray away’ a mental health condition,” notes the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So do not blame yourself or God when prayers, hymns, sermons, scriptures, or encouraging friends do not seem to change your mood. Mental illness is a chemical imbalance in your insides, it is a disease, and it is one that can often be treated.
We understand so little about mental illness. It is a quiet, lonely, and dark valley. Psalm 23 says: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me…” For people with a mental illness, that may be one of the most important messages in the Bible: you are not alone.
Some of God’s sheep have a mental illness—about one out of five. We understand so little about it. In many ways, we are still in the dark ages. Mental illness is a quiet, lonely, and dark valley. Psalm 23 says: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4 NRSV). For people with a mental illness, that may be one of the most important messages in the Bible: you are not alone.
The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”
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