By: Rev. Ed Schneider
Recently I was astounded at some of the stories floating around our country concerning the lack of support for those elderly individuals who are truly suffering through mental illness. In every city, town, and village there are seriously ill men and women who are well into the “Senior Citizen” designation struggling significantly with the endless frustration of not receiving the practical help they need. It is sadly quite real and it is happening right now. So the question is , what can a family, friend, or even a community do about it?
In 1 Samuel 18:10-12, it tells the story of Saul who is losing grasp of reality and how that is afflicting his life and the others around him. That particular scripture reads,
“The next day the LORD let an evil spirit take control of Saul, and he began acting like a crazy man inside his house. David came to play the harp for Saul as usual, but this time Saul had a spear in his hand. Saul thought, ‘I’ll pin David to the wall.’ He threw the spear at David twice, but David dodged and got away both times. Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was helping David and was no longer helping him.“
Mental illness is unfortunately culturally stigmatized and deeply misunderstood. As a result of this unfair and counter-productive cultural attitude, many people who suffer from truly debilitating conditions never get the help they need.
Many families have “that relative” they talk about in a whispered tone. They may refer to the person as not being “not quite right.” Some well-intended but terribly misinformed folks will often make excuse for their behavior and then do nothing about it. Others will convict these suffering souls through their personal judgmentalism and again do nothing to help the person who is spiraling downward into an abyss of denial, depression, dementia, or any number of other debilitating mental disorders.
People – all people – are afraid of things they don’t understand. Folks have always lashed out at illnesses and far too often blamed the “curse” on mental disorders. During the time of Jesus, epilepsy was one of those illnesses that no one comprehended, and so it was thought to be a curse of mental illness from God. Even though it is one of the more ugly aspects of our human condition it does seem to be a fairly normal reaction. Some people will inappropriately conclude that those things they don’t understand or become fearful of are either evil or “crazy.”
Another good example of this uncomfortable reality is that in today’s world of skepticism, disbelief, and rampant secular humanism, more than a few folks completely misunderstand people-of-faith in general and Christianity in particular. Because of their bias and fear they intentionally “demonize” that which they do not understand. Just look at television shows or movies where “the Chrstian” is portrayed as some sort of loon.
Beloved, please believe me when I tell you mental illness is not a character weakness! It is not some divine retribution for past bad behavior. It is medically based. It is real. It hurts. It negatively affects not just the afflicted’s family but it can and often affects the world around these suffering individuals.
Adult children of the mentally ill may experience great challenges in initiating relationships or they can experience feelings of isolation. Maintaining friendships, trusting themselves and others, or even balancing any level of practical intimacy occur because they become excessively dependent or overtly fearful of interpersonal intimacy.
A spouse of the afflicted person can easily show signs of guilt, resentment, sham, embarrassment, depression, the inability to express anger constructively, confusion about his or her own identity, or the inability to deal with “ordinary life” unless it is chaotic or in crisis. These spouses go through life turning from one extreme to another. They will experience extremes of obsessive and exaggerated personal responsibility or complete irresponsibility concerning commitments, money, alcohol, relationships, etc. Their self-defeating thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors slowly engulf their way of experiencing life.
In every city, town, and village, there are tortured souls, some of whom are walking the street aimlessly searching for someone or something they will never find. There are people who have had tremendous professional lives, others who have done great things for their family and community, who believe they must “escape” their house because they think it is a prison.
It is certainly not unheard of to have individuals calling businesses and churches over and over and over again leaving rambling messages in a desperate hope of retaining a personal sense of importance and relevancy. I am fairly comfortable more than a few of you have witnessed person regularly wandering the streets trying to hitch a ride from a passing car in hope of going somewhere that no longer exists.
It is both sad and upsetting to observe how some people will laugh and make fun of these tortured souls simply because they find themselves unaware of what to do or what to say. Beloved, it certainly isn’t funny or morally acceptable to ridicule someone for a medical condition that is not their fault.
Oh, yes, mental illness is a problem in our country and around the world and we should not a blind eye to both the individuals afflicted and the issue itself. Beloved, we can not look away from this overriding issue of Divine mercy and justice.
Now that I have said this, what do we do?
Here are four very quick bits of advice to get you started.
• Offer your friendship and support. The most important thing a loved one can do for a family member or friend in pain is to offer him or her your friendship and support. Being a good listener is a must. Don’t judge and profoundly try to resist offering your own opinions and advice. Just listen and know the person in front of you is vulnerable and in need.
• Don’t disagree, argue or shame them: When someone wants to talk to you about their depression or other mental health concerns, check your intellectual brain at the door and pull out your emotional brain. It’s not a time to disagree with someone who’s looking for guidance, direction or help with an issue. It’s a time to offer support, hope, and help.
• Engage the person in activities: Many times, it is the inclination of someone who’s under a lot of stress, anxiety, or depression to say, “Just leave me alone.” Don’t accept such a response at face value. Make it easy for others by inviting them to activities you would normally do with others. With this as a goal, you must also respect your friend or family member’s wishes if they say, “Thanks but no thanks.” Always offer, but don’t pressure or try and guilt someone into doing something they really don’t feel up to.
• Help your mentally ill friend seek treatment. It won’t be appropriate in every situation, but in many cases, your friend or family member may need actual assistance in getting treatment. They may not have the first idea of where to go, who to talk to, and what it involves. Yes, this means taking some initiative and effort to deal with these things, but if you really care about your family member or friend, it’s a small price to pay.
Here are a few numbers that will offer practical help.
• National Alliance on Mental Illness: 800-467-3589; firstname.lastname@example.org
• National Empowerment Center: 800-769-3728; http://www.power2u.org