By Mona McCalley-Whitters, PhD, and Alan Whitters, MD
CEDAR RAPIDS — The 10th annual Mass for Mental Illness Awareness will be held at St. Patrick Church, Cedar Rapids, at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1. Persons with mental illness, as well as their families, friends, caregivers and health providers are welcome. The theme of this year’s Mass is “Fear not, for I am with you” (Is 43:5).
Virginia Pillars, author of “Broken Brain, Fortified Faith: Lessons of Hope Through a Child’s Mental Illness,” will speak about the intersection of faith and mental illness during a social hour in St. Patrick’s parish center following the Mass. She will also sign copies of her book.
Our Holy Father Pope Francis reaffirms the teachings of Isaiah 43:5 to fear not the desperation of the world. As the pope has said, “In his Son, God expresses his solidarity with every human situation and revealed that we are not alone, because we have a Father Who does not forget His children.” The Mass for Mental Illness Awareness is a unique opportunity to follow through with solidarity and compassion. All are invited to attend the special Mass to reach out to persons with mental illness. All families, friends, health care providers, caregivers and community advocates will unite to promote social justice and solidarity. Together, we will create a spiritual environment of hope, education and awareness to decrease the stigma of mental illness.
Education: Everyone knows someone who has mental health issues including family members, teachers, doctors, football players and persons from all walks of life. In fact, one in five Americans live with mental health conditions. A recent survey indicates that half of all Americans have a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives. Severe and persistent mental illness is less common than mild-moderate conditions but still afflicts 3 percent of the population. Schizophrenia afflicts about 1 percent of the population and utilizes most hospital beds in the United States.
Each person has a personal story and a journey that impacts their daily functioning at home, work and in their community. Whether you live with mental illness or are a family member, a friend or a caregiver, it is important to see the person and not the diagnosis. Mental health, along with physical and spiritual health, is critical to our overall well-being.
Decrease Stigma Through Knowledge: Mental illness describes multiple brain disorders that impact the way a person lives, thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. It is a serious misconception when mental illness is viewed as a weakness or a defect in one’s personality. Research is advancing our understanding of the brain and the relationship between the mind and body.
The term “mental illness” is a misnomer, because it implies a distinction from physical illness. Mounting evidence shows that distinctions between mental and physical illness are a myth. For example, several neurotransmitters (chemicals that help our bodies’ cells communicate with one another) have been shown to be altered in a variety of psychiatric disorders.
Conversely, most physical illnesses have been associated with mood or cognitive/thinking changes.
While we have come a long way from days of exorcising the mentally ill, social stigmas continue to abound. Understanding mental health is important to dispel stigmatizing stereotypes. Much harm has been done by well-intentioned people demanding that sufferers get better by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”
As a brain disorder, mental illness results in maladaptive coping mechanisms such as hurting themselves or abusing alcohol. Mental health treatment attempts to solve problems that arise in dealing with these stressors through counseling and medications. Great strides have been made in treatment that improve daily functioning, decrease hospitalizations and increase the quality of lives in persons with mental health conditions.
Encouragement and Advocacy: The Catholic Church teaches that people with any kind of mental illness are equal in their human dignity. It is important to view mental conditions in a nonjudgmental manner. Offering encouragement and decreasing the social isolation of persons with mental illness will make a difference.
Furthermore, our mental health system is in crisis. Raise your voice to ask for better policies to provide timely interventions and humane care. Become an advocate who speaks up for mental health legislation. Demand politicians provide funding for programs to care for millions of Americans with mental health conditions. On a local level, you can become active in various community programs, spiritual activities, church worship and prayers for mental health.
Please follow the lead of Pope Francis to foster social justice and mental health awareness. In taking action and joining together, we may continue to break down barriers and improve chances of recovery.
Drs. Mona and Alan Whitters have been practitioners in the mental health field in Eastern Iowa for more than 26 years, as well as members of the steering committee for the Mass for Mental Illness Awareness for the last 10 years.
A person watches the sunset above a sea of fog on the summit of Chaux Ronde in Gryon, Switzerland, Oct. 5. (CNS photo/Anthony Anex, EPA)