(Read Psalm 88:1-9a, 13-18 and John 1:1-5)
In an article found on the Mental Health Ministries website, I found the question raised: How many families in your church have a loved one who struggles with mental health problems?
If our congregation is representative of the U.S. population (and it probably is), one in four households will struggle with someone’s mental health problems over their lifetime. That includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and various anxiety disorders. (By Carlene Hill Byron. “1 in 4 households in your church is afraid to tell you this secret.” http://www.mentalhealthministries.net/links_resources/articles/carkene.pdf).
No one is immune to the dark cloud that is mental illness. The individual suffers; family and friends suffer; work suffers. Life itself becomes suffering. For the people who actually have mental health problems, darkness is the perfect word to describe the place where their minds exist. You feel lost, alone, confused, blind. You feel unlike yourself, like you don’t even know who you are anymore, like no one understands you. You feel anxious, hopeless, impatient. You dwell in a place that is cut off from the light of God, and all the good things that God has given to you are unappreciated by your mind.
Psalm 88 sounds like a man or woman who is suffering from mental illness: “God, you’re my last chance. I spend the night on my knees before you. I’m written off as a lost cause, a hopeless case. Abandoned. I’m a black hole in oblivion. I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out, blinded by tears of pain and frustration. Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting. You have made lover and neighbor alike dump me; the only friend I have left is Darkness.”
That’s what it feels like. Terrible, hopeless. Consumed by darkness.
Some other facts for you about mental health disorders:
One in seventeen Americans lives with a serious mental illness, and about one in ten children have a serious mental or emotional disorder.
About 2.4 million Americans, or 1.1 percent of the adult population, live with schizophrenia.
Bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million American adults, approximately 2.6 percent of the adult population per year.
Major depressive disorder affects 6.7 percent of adults, or about 14.8 million American adults. And According to the 2004 World Health Report, this is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada in ages between 15 to 44.
Anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, obsessive‐compulsive disorder (OCD), post‐traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias, affect about 18.1 percent of adults, an estimated 40 million individuals. Anxiety disorders frequently co‐occur with depression or addiction disorders.
An estimated 5.2 million adults have co‐occurring mental health and addiction disorders.
Of adults using homeless services, thirty‐one percent reported having a combination of mental health and addiction conditions.
These statistics come to you from the National Alliance on Mental Health. http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=About_Mental_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=53155
Mental illness is a gospel concern because social ills like homelessness, unemployment, addiction and imprisonment, often result from mental illness. Christians are called to care for the poor and visit the imprisoned. We are called to help our brothers and sisters who are unemployed or suffering from addiction. Rather than just treat their symptoms, we can work to alleviate the cause of many of their problems when we treat mental illness.
If you look at the faces of your friends and brothers and sisters in the Lord seated around you this Sunday, it is certain that some of them are hurting from problems that arise because of mental health disorders or mental illness.
It’s sad to think about their struggles or your struggles, but what compounds the problem is that no one is talking. We are afraid to tell each other about our mental health problems, and we are afraid to get help. It’s not only the person with mental illness who suffers; it’s everyone they are close to.
A study where people ranked disabilities by their “acceptability” returned these results, in order—most acceptable was: obvious physical disabilities, then blindness, deafness, a jail record, learning disabilities, and alcoholism. The least acceptable of all disabilities: mental illness. (By Carlene Hill Byron. “1 in 4 households in your church is afraid to tell you this secret.” http://www.mentalhealthministries.net/links_resources/articles/carkene.pdf).
Why? I’m not sure. I grew up in a household where mental health and illness was talked about without any stigmas attached. As many of you know, my father is a psychiatrist. He often talked to us about the nature of his work, and also, patients called our home day and night. I would talk to them sometimes. They had problems that my dad, the doctor, was trying to treat. I knew sickness happened to the body. I also knew it happened to the mind. The brain is a sensitive organ, and when its normal function is disrupted, the effects can be life-altering for the people involved.
But most people do not grow up so accustomed to the pervasive problem of mental illness, and most people do not understand its causes.
That’s why I am talking about this today. I believe that everyone here is affected by problems that occur in the brain. Everyone. There is nothing shameful about it. It’s not to be hidden. It’s a fact of life like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, like heart attacks and strokes, like diabetes and cancer.
The problem is that the negative stigma around mental illness remains. Many people still believe that mental illness is their fault. Many people still believe that mental health problems only happen to people who are weak or unfaithful, to people of poor character or low intelligence.
Such ideas are completely false. Mental illness is a bio-chemical brain disorder that can happen to anyone, any race, class, gender, age, nationality, etc. Whether wealthy or poor, intelligent or dumb, motivated or lazy, faithful or not, no one is immune. Mental illness can also be exacerbated by unfortunate or stressful life circumstances.
If you don't suffer from mental illness and are not close with anyone who does, you should fall on your knees in gratitude and thank God.
The truth is, all of our minds are on a continuum of healthy to unhealthy. Sometimes, we can live normally with the way our brains work; othertimes, we can’t. Mental health and illness exists on a continuum of severity. There’s not that great of a distance between feeling really nervous and having your first panic attack. There's not that great of a distance between feeling down and unmotivated to being diagnosed with clinical depression. There's not that great of a distance between being neat, orderly, controlling and being obsessive.
But there is good news! Great news in fact! As Michael Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness states, “Simply put, treatment works, if you can get it.” (Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of NAMI National,Grading the States, 2006 12 Nami Fact Sheet
With proper treatment, including therapy and taking the right medications, most people who live with mental illness can significantly reduce the impact of their illness and lead a healthy, happy, and productive life, surrounded by loved ones who are also healthy, happy and satisfied.
I recently read two quotes of a similar nature. One is: “We are as sick as our secrets.” The other is: “We are as lonely as our secrets.” Both are true. Secrets dwell in the darkness, and the darkness gives them their power over us. The darkness makes us sick, and the darkness makes us lonely.
All secrets, especially those concerning our mental wellness or lack thereof, need to be exposed to the light. The light brings healing to our sickness and love to our loneliness.
It’s a scary thing to do. It feels incredibly vulnerable, but when you suffer with mental illness, and you make the choice to confide in family, friends, your pastor, and mental health professionals, the light begins to break through the darkness, and change begins to happen. As the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
On several occassions, Jesus responded to the mentally ill. Lacking medical knowledge, he explained it as casting out demons, but their healing was no different than making the blind to see or the criple walk.
Darkness is no match for Christ’s light.
So now , let us offer to Christ our darkness so that he might bring his light into our midst and heal us.
But prayer is not the end of all this; it is only the beginning.
Today, I invite you to give up any negative stigmas or judgments you have held about mental illness. I invite you to talk to family, friends, professionals, and pastors. Let the secrets out of the darkness because the darkness only gives them more power. It is the light that saves us all.