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mental illness stigma in churches: an occasion for self reflection

thanks to barry for taking the time and care to comment on the post about how some christian churches deal with mental illness.

one of the habits i have fallen into is that when i feel critical of someone, i then turn to myself and ask myself how i, or groups i belong to or identify with, behave in that way, as well.

in many ways, i agree with barry. that’s why i’m going to do this exercise here. here’s what barry says:

the moment you mention mental troubles to the evangelical/charismatic christian spectrum they tend (not in every case) to talk of scripture in a pronouncedly denouncing manner.

when we feel we’re right, it’s incredibly tempting to find a piece of authority to support it. on a conscious level, i try to watch out for this but i’m aware that i’m always driven a bit more by the desire to have someone/something agree with me than to find someone who disagrees with me.

having said that, there is a big difference between getting someone to agree with you in general, and getting someone to agree with you and then using that in a denouncing manner.

i cannot help but think of the inquisition here.

barry then points out

there are several reasons for this

1) they’re comfortable with their critical views and change means humility and hard work

we’re all comfortable with our views – that’s a rock-bottom human condition. and in this comfort, we rarely label our views as anything even remotely negative. i bet most people who espouse this view do not see it as critical at all. to them it’s just – well, right.

i find the use of scripture to speak ill of people with mental health issues horrible. this is my view. is there something that i could change? something where i need more humility?

my immediate reaction is – i’m already doing my darndest to be understanding. enough already!

well – maybe i am doing a lot to be understanding. but “enough already” is not humble!

2) they think that they can heal any illness by immediate prayer (and if the person concerned isn’t immediately healed, they become very worried that their prayers have failed, thus passing same on/back to sufferer, with the inevitable ‘your faith wasn’t strong enough’ or ‘you weren’t co-operating with prayer’ – anything to avoid facing the terrible and ashen fact that god , for whatever reason, has said no to them, which he’s entitled to do after all).

again, what a human thing to do. i’m powerless over something, i can’t stand that powerlessness, so i turn around and make it all someone else’s fault. and since i’ve just experienced the extreme discomfort of powerlessness, i’m going to do my best to make sure that the person/persons i blame can’t defend themselves. that way i can feel a bit more control.

i bet you if we’re honest, we can all easily name an instance like that – probably something quite innocuous. for example, i find it much easier to criticize my children than my husband, and that includes situations where i don’t shoulder as much of the responsibility as i truly have.

in a much more serious fashion, this happens not infrequently in therapy (“you’re not getting better because you’re resisting!”). i go out of my way to not do this. it’s a difficult road to tread because it can easily move over to the other extreme: collusion. (“of course you can’t get better – see how bad your wife is treating you!”)

3) they can’t bear to think of themselves (or their children) suffering such intractability and so they respond with judgemental attitudes driven by fear and apparent need to placate the almighty

irreverently, i call this the “monkey pimple syndrome”. we see illness and become afraid. when we become afraid, we regress. when we regress, we become irrational (more irrational than we are to begin with). in this irrational state, we believe that all illness contaminates – as soon as we “touch” the person who is ill, we are in danger of catching it, too.

this situation that barry describes is something that i come across frequently when working with people with chronic pain. most anyone – health care professionals definitely included – is terribly afraid of pain. the cold distancing and the blaming (“it’s all in your head”) stems at least partly from that fear.

this is where the hard work comes in that barry talked about earlier. i need to keep learning about when and where i have such fearful knee jerk reactions and go into regression – that’ll make it easier to catch myself early in that process and hopefully not even go there at all.

finally, barry says

the trick ( if indeed there is one) is to rebut ignorance with dignity and knowledge and when you’re given judgemental opinions on your illness, to request the personally graduated medical school it came from.

to that bag of tricks i’ve just added compassion, honesty and personal responsibility.

or maybe it’s not about tricks. maybe it’s just about being present with our brothers and sisters, even in painful moments.

thanks again, barry, for inspiring this post. and let me just make it very clear again – while i did take this as an occasion to reflect on my own faults, i certainly don’t condone the attitude you’ve found. these reflections are explanations, not excuses.

let’s also take this as an occasion of inviting people to talk about where churches of all stripes have been helpful to people with mental illness. i’d be happy to host a guest post about that.