A Christian perspective on Mental Illness

Mental Health Awareness Month is observed in May

“May the Church be a place of God’s mercy and hope, where all feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel. And to make others feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, and encouraged, the Church must be with doors wide open so that all may enter.”

—Pope Francis

By Mona McCalley-Whitters, Ph.D. and Alan Whitters, MD

Special to The Witness

We are called to action by our Holy Father Pope Francis to provide a compassionate, caring environment for all. In May, Catholics have an opportunity to follow this message from Pope Francis during Mental Health Awareness month. The goal is to educate ourselves and others about mental health, to decrease stigmas associated with mental illness, and to provide encouragement to persons with mental conditions.

Education: Everyone knows someone who has mental health issues. 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. Mild conditions are quite common. Severe and persistent mental illness is less common but still afflicts three percent of the population. Schizophrenia afflicts about one 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, a care giver, or a health provider, 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. 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.

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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’ cell 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.

Decrease Stigma through Knowledge: 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 dispelling stigmatizing stereotypes. Much harm has been done by well-intentioned people demanding that sufferers get better by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” Great strides continue in mental health. As a brain disorder, mental illness results in maladaptive coping mechanisms such as patients hurting themselves or abusing alcohol. Mental health treatment attempts to solve problems that arise in dealing with these stressors through counseling and medications. These treatments have been shown to improve functioning, decrease hospitalizations, and improve 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 and needs us to take action. 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 to improve lives. 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 during the month of May and in the upcoming year. One such spiritual event, the ninth annual Mass for Mental Illness Awareness will occur at 2 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2016 at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids. Please follow the lead of Pope Francis to foster acceptance and encouragement of the mentally ill. Taking action and raising awareness of mental health issues can break down barriers and improve the chances of recovery. Be a champion and promote Mental Health Awareness Month.

Mona McCalley-Whitters, Ph.D., is a psychologist and Alan Whitters, MD, is a psychiatrist. The authors are practitioners in the mental health field in Eastern Iowa for over 25 years. They have been on the steering committee which plans the Mass for Mental Illness Awareness at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids for the past nine years. Pope Francis made the remarks quoted above at his June 12, 2013 General Audience. To read his full remarks, visit http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/audiences/2013/documents/papa-francesco 20130612 udienza-generaleen.html

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