Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Mental Illnesses are Real Illnesses that Need Treatment

I keep coming back to this issue because it's so important that we get it straight. 

It's an issue that can be difficult, because there's still a lot that we don't understand about mental illness and people who suffer from it. The pathology of "Interior Perception Distortion" is not accessible in the same way as a rash or a fever or a broken bone. It seems more bound up with personality, sensibilities, temperament, etc. It's difficult to empathize if we haven't experienced it ourselves, and it's not easily "fixed."

But we cannot afford to ignore it, or try to deal with it as if it were just a spiritual or moral problem, or assume that it's just another bogus evasion produced by the bad bad evil "modern world." Mental illnesses are real and they've been around from way back.

Anyone who gets sick enough knows it's not just a trick invented by doctors and drug companies. Sure, some people try to take advantage, which is not surprising. There are always people trying to make money off our sickness and our health, our fears and our desires, our search for quick and easy solutions. This is a problem that permeates the whole health care system; indeed, it's a key factor in the dysfunctionality of a consumerist society.

That doesn't mean that we should reject treatments for mental illness, including medical treatments. Psychiatric medications are overhyped in some cases, or used as an exclusive and formulaic response to certain conditions. But medications are also unreasonably feared in many cases where they can help. 

Psychiatric medication is like a bandage, and bandages can be cumbersome. But they stop you from bleeding out of control all the time. Psychotherapy can accomplish significant things, or--in situations of chronic illness--it can at least help people manage a condition and reduce its constraints (even if they have to accept that it will always be in some measure debilitating).

This doesn't seem very satisfactory, but we must do the best we can. Stop the bleeding and work to heal the wound or at least to live as fully as possible with the condition. If the bleeding starts again, we have to do the best we can to try to stop it...again. We may need to use a lot of "bandages." But make no mistake: mental illnesses don't get better on their own. We must seek treatment and care for these illnesses. 

Of course, we can only do our best for ourselves and our loved ones, and fight as hard as we can with whatever means we have available to us. Mental illness may still make a big mess out of life, and cause pain to ourselves and others. Like any other affliction or personal trial, we must use our freedom wisely but also be willing to accept that some things are beyond our control. We must be patient with one another, sorry (and forgiving) for any real personal failures, and beyond that not be burdened by false guilt or grudges. 

Of course we have to pray. We can't live any personal challenge without prayer, and illness--whether externally physical or mental--is a profound challenge. Should we pray for healing? Certainly! Prayer bring all kinds of mysterious healing, but that's God's business. We need to give Him room to work in us, and we need to listen, because God loves us and wants to teach us to love Him.

But we might pray deeply and ardently for healing and still need medication-- and that's humbling. The Lord may not take away mental illness, but He'll use it for the good and He'll help us to begin to "see" it within the scope of His loving plan to bring us to Himself. We won't see it completely, but He will give us what is needed to draw us onward; He will give us enough to take the next step and then the next and then the next....

There seems to be a lot of mental illness today, and that is not surprising either. We live in a tumultuous world, with unprecedented power that makes our lives materially advanced and complex, but also puts many of us under intense and peculiar stress and imperils our health in ways we don't even understand. It's a world that triggers predispositions to illnesses like anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, depression. 

People have to judge how to use resources that can help even in limited ways, and they can't do it alone. It challenges families, friendships, and communities --but with God's grace it can bring them closer.

Stigma and ignorance, however, are useless and dangerous. People who are fighting against real illness --fighting to survive and indeed to live as best as they can --deserve our understanding, our help, our support, our patience, and our compassion.