The Mystery of Mental Illness
Despite all our scientific advances, mental illness remains something of a mystery. As a result, when a member of our congregation becomes depressed, we are likely to respond in a very different way than if they are diagnosed with cancer or heart disease.
The former chaplain of the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospitals, John Foskett, noted that there is a long and confusing history to the phenomena we call ‘madness’. The discussion about causes and cures continues, and yet explanations seem as elusive as ever.
Foskett identifies three issues:
1 that people who suffer with mental illness are stigmatised:
2 that people, both sufferers and helpers alike, put their faith in one particular approach and acclaim it as the answer to everything. In time, it is revealed afresh that some approaches help some people sometimes. Perhaps the very desire to identify a cure reveals the desperation we feel about mental illness.
3 that despite growing needs, there are diminishing resources:
John Foskett says, ‘If anything should stir the pastor’s sense of compassion, it is the sadness and hopelessness which so often engulf the mentally ill and all who have to do with them, be they relatives or their helpers.’ His book, Meaning in Madness was first published in 1984 by SPCK and, though it is now out of print, sadly these remarks are not out of date.
the stigma of mental illness
The mysterious nature of mental illness means that those who who suffer with it may be judged. People in the congregation who become depressed and isolate themselves may be deemed ‘unreliable’. Most tragically of all, they will be very critical of themselves and feel too ashamed to speak openly of their distress.
Sometimes people feel that they just cannot cope any more and find it hard to understand such a disproportionate reaction. One person, with bi-polar disorder, found themselves in a supermarket and spent over an hour trying to decide what lettuce to buy. They eventually fled home, buying nothing at all.
We often hear the criticism that people have not been taking their medication and so have become ill. Again, this demonstrates the stigma that mental illness attracts. It does not happen when, for instance, people decide to stop chemotherapy or opt for alternative therapies rather than undergo painful operations.
Although advances in medication have made an enormous difference in managing and alleviating the symptoms of mental illness, this is not a cure. The side effects of medication can be very disabling and lead to a loss of dignity with increased weight gain or constant dribbling. There is a very real danger that the mysterious nature of mental illness reduces the person who is suffering mental distress to a medical condition. In the process, we lose sight of their humanity.
the place of friendship
When someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, there is consternation and a concern to know what services are available. Can the sufferer be admitted to a hospital ward? Are there day care services, psychological therapies and other forms of professionalised care? In other words, is there somewhere else, indeed anywhere else, that someone can go rather than remain here to baffle and confuse us?
In an interestingly entitled book, Resurrecting the Person, John Swinton argues that friendship as an approach to mental healthcare is very effective and a resource that a church community is well able to provide. He says, ‘Christian friendships based on the friendships of Jesus can be a powerful force for the reclamation of the centrality of the person in the process of mental healthcare. It is within the relationship of friendship that we discover a critical tool of liberation and healing. This can enable the church to fulfil its task of rehumanising those whom society has dehumanised through its attitudes and its refusal to relate with them in a way that is meaningful and life enhancing.’
lost for words
In the material that we are publishing this year to mark World Mental Health Day on 10th October, we want to explore the mystery of mental illness and recognise that it creates difficulties in ordinary human relating. Barriers may occur because people are literally ‘lost for words’ through conditions such as dementia or learning disability. Words may be difficult to make sense of when a person is psychotic. But this does not mean they have nothing to say.
We can offer the gift of communication by listening very attentively. This will mean using more of our senses than just listening with our ears. It may mean using our eyes to see sign language and pick up visual clues. We may even need to use our sixth sense of intuition to interpret words and behaviours. At times, our best guide will be the feelings created in us by the contact with the other person. Listening carefully might involve responding sensitively with a gentle touch or kindly eye contact that says we’re willing to be with you even though communication is difficult and is hard to understand.
We also offer some suggestions to design worship that uses all the senses and makes it particularly accessible to people at a time of mental distress. It may be that approaching worship this way makes it more inclusive and of wider benefit than just to those who are lost for words.