Several years ago, I remember having a conversation with “Oleg” (name has been changed). Oleg was a gentleman who did not have a home. What he did have, however, were some mental health concerns. Over time, Oleg and I came to know each other, and even though Oleg knew I was “one of those pastor types,” he didn’t hold it against me.
One afternoon, as we were talking, Oleg said to me: “You know, people just laugh at me and everyone talks about me. They’re always taking about how crazy I am. They don’t think I know, but I do. And it hurts my feelings. I wish I could be different, I try, but I can’t.” Oleg felt sad and angry both about his mental health issues AND the stigma he encountered because of those issues.
My conversations with Oleg remind me of a story in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is traveling around the countryside, as he was known to do, and encountered a “demon-possessed” man from the town. See, the “impure spirit” had seized the man many times, and though he had been chained hand and foot—to keep him and everyone around him safe—he had broken his chains and been driven into solitary places. While this feels like a sad and unfortunate situation, Jesus comes into the picture with some hope and transformation.
It is a healing story in the Gospel, but perhaps not in the most obvious way. The first thing that Jesus does when he encounters this man with mental health issues, is that he asks “What is your name?” That’s it, right there. In the first century world where all this man had encountered was shame and stigma, Jesus ignored the social norms and asked him his name. And with the graceful acknowledgment of agency, the man’s life was forever changed.
Mental health concerns and stigma still exist for people today, and even right here in our beloved community of Delaware. I think as people of faith, we are called to be concerned about the issues around caring for persons with mental health concerns, in our community and in our churches.
Why should your faith community care about mental health?
Because one in four people in your congregation is affected by mental illness. Mental illnesses do not discriminate — they affect people from all races, creeds, income categories and social classes. Stigma keeps people from sharing their stories with others in your congregation, so they seldom get the support we offer to people with other types of illnesses.
Because more than half of people who seek outside help when they are in crisis turn first to their clergy/faith leaders, before they seek help from psychiatrists, physicians or psychologists. If you are a faith leader, do you feel prepared to counsel on mental health problems? If you are a member of a faith community, do you feel confident your leaders have the education and training they need to help you and your family deal with the mental health issues you face?
Because there are many people who are living with a mental illness/brain disorder who are looking for a faith community that offers an inclusive welcome and provides spiritual support.
Here are some ways faith communities can address mental health issues:
• Talk about mental illness in your sermons, classes, and adult forums, especially when you are addressing compassionate outreach, social justice and erasing stigma and discrimination. Talking openly about mental illnesses reduces the grip of stigma. Emphasize the biological nature of brain disorders and remind your congregations that they can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, religion or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing.
• Pay attention to the words you use. Avoid stigmatizing language and encourage everyone in your congregation to do the same. Do not refer to people as “crazy,” “psycho,” “lunatic” or “mental.” Use phrases like “people with mental illnesses” rather than “the mentally ill.”
(Source: Interfaith Network on Mental Illness www.inmi.us)
Together, as people of faith, I believe we can honor people with stories like Oleg’s, and all who experience mental health concerns in our community.