Seeking Spaces for Openness about Mental Illness

It seems like there are a lot of people in my life right now who have Caring Bridge web pages. The Caring Bridge, in case you do not know people who need to use it, is a web platform that allows people with illnesses or difficult life events, and their families, to communicate with their support communities without having to contact each person individually. Most commonly, a family member posts updates: “Frank is having his 5th of 10 rounds of chemo today. So far it’s going as well as we can expect.” “Mary is back in the hospital.” This is a great example of the use of a specific social media form for support, and for pastoral care. Sometimes people put up their own updates; other times family members use the site to update their community of care about their loved one.

What I am also noticing, however, alongside confronting the reality of how many people I know right now who suffer cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, MS, or some other physical illness, is that I don’t ever receive Caring Bridge invitations from people or family members dealing with mental illnesses, nor do I set up such pages for the members of my own family who struggle with mental illness. Why is that? On the one hand, there are other venues that people use to share their stories of mental illness, including some online contexts. I am blessed to know a number of friends and professional colleagues who openly blog about their personal journeys with mental illness: see  Suddenly Bipolar or Unorthodox & Unhinged: Tales of a Manic Christian for two great examples. These are folks who courageously invite readers into their experiences, emotions, and thinking as they deal with the long- and short-term impact of mental illness on life and ministry. I routinely experience their writing as a gift, as it exposes me to situations, emotions, and realities I would not otherwise know about. On the other hand, it seems that such transparency about mental illness is still not the norm. The long-term, chronic character of much mental illness means that people tend not to create Caring Bridge pages to share the latest events, because there may not be much “news” per se, but rather just the day in, day out challenge of living with a mental illness. I suspect, however, that the major reason for the dearth of Caring Bridge pages for people with mental illness is the age-old problem of stigma and shame.

Just as there is a lack of parity between mental illness and physical illness in terms of insurance benefits and access to health care, there also exists a “lack of parity” in how freely and comfortably mental illness gets named and discussed in many of our lives in comparison to most physical illnesses. Part of what my friends who blog about their experiences remind me through their gracious writing is that mental illnesses are medical conditions in which the symptoms are behaviors–and that because church and society tend to treat behaviors in the category of moral issues, there is plenty of shame and blame attached to mental illnesses, to the people who suffer from them, and to the family members of those sufferers. Stigma and shame surrounding mental illness may make it difficult on a whole variety of levels to move to greater public transparency. For example I may be appropriately reluctant to share about a family member’s situation–even maintaining their anonymity– because of my assumption that it really is her or his story to tell and not mine, unless I have that person’s explicit permission to do so. Or I may decide that I can legitimately talk about my own experience of living with and loving a person with a mental illness, as my story–and yet I may fear the possible repercussions and sanctions that can come from being associated with persons with mental illness. How much more likely that I will be afraid of such negative effects, and silenced by that fear, if I am the person living with the condition of mental illness! Or, I may simply suffer from a lack of knowledge and vocabulary that make it difficult to know what or how to say anything about the experience of mental illness. No matter what the reason, the silence keeps us all stuck, isolated, separated, and unable to speak important truths about our lives because in reality none of us are exempt from coming close to mental illness one way or another.

In contrast to our silences, when Jesus confronted demons that made people’s lives painful and unlivable, he named them and engaged them openly and actively, putting boundaries around their power by refusing to look away. Jesus refused to act as if there were not a real person there, as if nothing could be done about their distress. I love and care about a whole bunch of people who suffer from various mental illnesses. And I long for a church and a society where it is as common and as comfortable to pray out loud in church for Uncle Joe who is currently struggling as he cycles through a manic phase of his illness as it is to do so for Aunt Jane who is currently sick with pneumonia. How does your community of faith address mental illnesses and the people who have them?