May is Mental Health Awareness Month—The Church Should Lead the Way
Jesus did not tell us to pray for the sick. Jesus tells us to heal the sick. Changing our mental health care systems is how we participate in healing the sick.
In my experience well-meaning people have a difficult time distinguishing between myths and facts related to mental health care. Here are few.
Mental illness is rare
Fact: One in 4 people including youth will experience a mental health problem in any given year and one half will receive treatment.
Mental health is a private matter best discussed in our own family.
Mental health is both a personal challenge and a public health crisis. Depression alone affects 264 million people world-wide. While around half of all mental health conditions start by age 14, with suicide as the second leading cause of death in young people 15 to 29.
People with mental illness are not able to work.
Fact: We all probably work with someone suffering from mental illness. The UN reports that depression and anxiety before the COVID-19 pandemic cost the global economy more than $1 trillion per year in lost productivity and treatment.
Young people just go through ups and downs as part of puberty, it is nothing to worry about.
Fact: One in 10 young people will experience a significant mental health challenge. It is important to pay attention and notice changes in behavior that may be symptomatic of a more serious underlying mental illness. Caregivers must educate themselves about the difference between mild anxiety and chronic mental suffering.
It is easy for young people to talk to their friends about their feelings.
Fact: Three in four young people fear their friends’ reactions when they talk about their own mental health. LGBTQI youth are at an even greater risk of suffering depression, anxiety, and suicide because of the increased stigma and social isolation resulting from COVID-19.
Mental illness is an adult problem.
Fact: Fifty percent of all lifetime mental illnesses begins by age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24. Signs of mental illness may start to show up early in life. Left untreated people suffer needlessly.
People with mental illness are unpredictable and violent.
Fact: People with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims of verbal and physical violence rather than a perpetrator.
People with mental illness do not experience real discrimination.
Fact: Nine out of 10 people with mental illness experience some form of public stigma, institutional discrimination, and social isolation.
For people of color systemic discrimination is even more pronounced. Only 9% of African Americans and Latinos receive mental health treatment as compared to double that of white people. White adults access prescription medication for mental health at twice the rate as African Americans.
The number of suicide attempts by adolescent Latina girls is 40% higher than that of white girls.
Only 6% of Asian-Americans sought out mental health care as compared with almost 19 percent of white adults.
Over 20% of Indigenous people report suffering from mental illness including severe depression. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Native American youth and young adult.
Mental illness is only about diagnosing and curing psychological and cognitive disorders.
Fact: Mental health is also about promoting our emotional, cognitive, and spiritual need for communion, because we are each made both in body and mind, in the image of God. We have sacred worth as members in the household of God.
We can respond to a single myth. But taken together, these myths justify the aggregate marginalization, stigmatization and unquestioned social isolation of persons who already suffer in body, mind, and spirit. More is needed.
It is important to be clear by what we want to achieve, which is mental health for all who suffer.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes her or his own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.
- Psalm 55:4-5 (NRSV)
Our Sunday liturgies and especially the hymns and the Psalms are intended to help us lament and grieve when we perceive life to be beyond our control. As a community, we create space to process what persons would otherwise endure alone. Because mental health affects the whole person and the whole of society including how we think and feel about ourselves and others, how we respond to periodic adverse life experiences, and how we sustain healthy relationships beyond fear and shame, it’s important for the church to then advocate for and promote mental health.
1 in 5 unhoused people suffer from mental illness and among chronically unhoused people it is as high as 1 in 3 people.
Incarceration is another obstacle. Two million people with mental illness are arrested and incarcerated offense every year for non-violent offenses and 44% suffer from some form of mental illness. Eighty-three percent do not have access to treatment. They are also incarcerated longer. When they are released their social dislocation is compounded because they lack access to mental healthcare, as well as affordable housing and work with a living wage.
Undocumented workers also have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Margarita Alegria, chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston says, “Child poverty in the Hispanic community causes them a worsened state of mental health, children whose parents lose jobs have a low sense of well-being, feel hopeless and depressed. Because of their parents’ economic downfalls, they suffer.”
John Wesley tells a particularly poignant story that can provoke us to action.
“Reflecting today on the case of a poor woman who had a continual pain in her stomach, I could not but remark the inexcusable negligence of most physicians in cases of this nature. They prescribe drug upon drug, without knowing a jot of the matter concerning the root of the disorder. And without knowing this they cannot cure, though they can murder the patient. Whence came this woman’s pain. (Which she would never have told, had she never been questioned about it.) From fretting from the death of her son. And what availed medicines while that fretting continued? Why then do not all physicians consider how far bodily disorders are caused or influenced by the mind?”
This could well have been written today. The story is illustrative of medical and social systems that do not look at people with mental illness as whole people. Are we asking those who suffer mental illness how best we can achieve what the WHO aspires to? “A state of well-being in which every individual realizes her or his own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community?”
The Psalms points to what full access to a continuum of mental health care can look like.
I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure
- Psalm 40:2 (NRSV)
In this pandemic there are powerful examples of society promoting security, recovery, solidarity, and the highest quality of life. Egypt, Kenya, Nepal, Malaysia, and New Zealand have increased emergency telephone lines providing mental health access to mental health professionals. In the Bahamas, which was devastated by Hurricane Dorian, awareness of trauma informs mental health care. NGOs in Pakistan provide vocational training for persons with mental health disabilities.
Jesus did not tell us to pray for the sick. Jesus tells us to heal the sick. Changing our mental health care systems is how we participate in healing the sick. This includes affirming the human rights and economic needs of all who live with mental illness. The empowered voice of persons living through mental illness must be heard and respected in our political, economic, and cultural spheres of influence. Access to persons who have been historically denied mental health care is a moral imperative. Advocacy for holistic care means ensuring equitable and affordable mental health care, comprehensive health insurance coverage and for a continuum of behavioral health services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate, person and community centered.
Artwork by Emmanuel Garibay. Used with permission.
National Alliance on Mental Illness the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.