Monday, June 20, 2011

Mental Illness Happens to "Normal People"

Tonight I am reflecting upon mental illness, but this time not my own.

It is so hard to get people to see that mental illness is real, by which I mean that it is real illness, and that it happens to people who are "regular human beings;" not just people who are in mental institutions or who have pieces of shrapnel sticking out of their skulls.

I understand the difficulty. Some good and patient people had to work on me for a long time to convince me that I was sick, and that I would only do further harm to myself and others if I didn't submit to the kind of healing processes that this illness requires. I can see why it's such a difficulty to introduce the topic in other circumstances, when people show signs that this kind of pain may be afflicting them. This is especially a problem for Christians. We Christians, I believe, are still very uncomfortable with approaching the widespread problem of mental illness in our society and among ourselves.

One reason is because Christians believe in free will and personal responsibility, and we think that pop psychology is an attempt to rationalize bad human behavior. Sadly, there are modes of psychology and even psychiatric medicine that give us reason to think this way. Lacking a proper foundation in human nature and a recognition of the human religious sense, they invent illnesses that don't really exist, overdiagnose, misdiagnose, and give poor treatment for genuine conditions so that the person is worse off than before. This fact doesn't help Christians deal squarely with the issue. Admitting mental illness appears to be an abdication of personal responsibility, an attempt to evade the effort to overcome personal weakness by moral effort. And since we are all sinners and we all do this to some extent, it makes it hard to clarify where the line is between sinfulness and affliction.

And yet afflictions and disorders of the "mind" are physiologically based, scientifically documented, and clinically verified beyond any reasonable doubt. Patterns of illness, treatment, and response/recovery are established. What is necessary is for more Christians to get involved in psychiatric medicine, psychology, and psychotherapy. Medical treatments and clinical analysis must be brought together more and more with a Christian understanding of treating and caring for the whole human person. Meanwhile, psychiatry needs to become more integrated with other medical specialties (indeed this is beginning to happen; I have found that psychiatrists often have a broader understanding of various illnesses in general than other specialists). This is important because there are so many physical factors that impact upon the emotional and psychological sphere. An integral approach to the health of the whole person is increasingly necessary in this stressful, fragmented world. The human person is so fragile on every level of his or her being.

We Christians (and, for that matter, all of us "normal" people) need to recognize that mental illness does not place a person in some strange category of rare freaks. Mental illness happens to normal people. It happens among us, in our communities, in our circles of friends, in our families. It happens to talented people and articulate people and even people who have the gift of helping others.

We must not be shocked, disoriented, amazed, or at a loss for what to do when it does happen. We must be ready to help the person in need. I encourage everyone to learn more about these things, for their own sakes and for those they love.

If you or someone you know needs help, you might try this website: