I've been thinking for a while that I should write something about mental illness that sort of parallels the post I wrote recently about how the Church can minister to the chronically ill and I've had a hard time wrapping my head around the subject.
Perhaps the subject is so huge, and perhaps I don't want to invade my daughter's privacy too much, but I do want to write about it. Forgive me if this post is less well organized than that other post.
First of all, a bit of background: When my oldest daughter was 13 (two years ago) she had a major psychotic break and was hospitalized for 10 days. Now we know that she suffers with Catatonic Schizophrenia. She takes medicine and sees a therapist (most psychiatrists require that). Her illness started manifesting itself when she was 11 years old, but we weren't sure of the extent of things until her break.
So, I am parenting and attempting to home-school a teenager who is "mentally ill". Based on how much she is/isn't able to get accomplished I can say this: Her illness is disabling.
Why did I put that "mentally ill" bit in quotation marks? Because I believe mental illness is physical illness. It is a disease of the body, since the brain is a part of the body. But it is NOT a disease of the soul, or of the nous. My daughter's inner mind (nous) is affected by her illness, for sure just as my nous is affected by the fact that I have fibromyalgia, but it itself is perhaps more whole and sane and healed and certainly more innocent than mine is. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
So, from an Orthodox perspective of the human person, I see mental illness as being in the category of bodily illness, and the spiritual life of the person who is thus afflicted can still be healthy, as determined by the inner struggle against sin that all Christians participate in. Now, the challenges are different...greater to some extent and lesser in some ways perhaps. We each have our cross to bear.
So, those are my thoughts on that. Now, practically, what does this mean in terms of life in the Church?
I think the most important thing Christians can do is inform themselves about mental illness and the issues that the mentally ill face, and then approach those suffering with patience and compassion. I think that any time a person's illness affects how they interact with other human beings, it gets really scary for people because we are fundamentally social creatures and we don't like the rules to get broken. (I'll go more into this in a post on autism). And it's easy for people to shy away from interacting with people they are scared of, who might be different. Easier just to avoid those people, and write them off as "not normal", "afflicted" or "losers". No, normal would not describe a mentally ill person, but such are still worthy of love and patience, understanding, help and genuine friendship. And one thins I must say and emphasize: A person struggling with mental illness can't just "get over it" or "pull themselves together and do better" or "repent of it". It is possible, I know, to have a mental illness and to be a manipulative, bitter, horrid person...those aspects of human nature are not tied to mental illness per se, but rather to the state of one's soul. Because it's also possible to have a mental illness and be innocent, pure in heart, prayerful, and to grieve over one's sins. One's spiritual condition is not determined by one's mental health status.
I've been friends with several different people, over the course of my life, who suffer from illnesses that are categorized as "mental illness": Bipolar, Bipolar-Schizo-affective disorder, Schizophrenia, Depression...and in each case the person has a real and vibrant love for God, has been a participant in his/her Church, seeking God and living a life of prayer and struggle, like was all do...along with a great deal of physical and mental symptoms that make life hard.
The prayers and the yearning for God are the most important things in life. But it's easy to see the instability and disability that can come with the "mentally ill" package and write such people off.
So, what is it that makes it so difficult? People suffering from mental illness might have so much they are contending with: hearing voices, panic attacks, paranoid thoughts, seeing things that aren't there, deep depression, neurological issues, catatonia etc. Or the side effects of medications: lethargy, weight gain, sleepiness, dizziness, tardive-dyskinesia (uncontrolled twitching)...this is a very very difficult package for a human being to deal with. A person dealing with these symptoms might be doing more work just sitting on the sofa than a healthy person is doing in the course of a productive day.
Personal cleanliness and grooming can be a struggle for a person with mental illness, simply because they have so much else on their plate. I sometimes wonder if there isn't something about the biochemical make-up of the illness that causes people's hair to stand on end. Seriously. A good caregiver will be helping the sick person to present themselves at their best, but I've never met a person struggling with mental illness for whom fashion is a priority. Over look this when you are extending love to a person with mental illness.
It's easy to be impatient with disassociated ramblings of such a person, or their paranoid thoughts, or repetitive behaviors. But it is absolutely vital that we extend love and compassion and patience instead. (I see more of the bad times at home than I do when we are out and about so even our friends don't really know the full extent of what it's like to have mental illness in the family.) People with mental illness did not ask for their diseases. They just have them.
And parish members struggling with mental illness need our prayers. Their caregivers and family members need prayers, too. Because it is an on-going reality with it's ups and downs. Sometimes meds are effective, and then sometimes they cease to be effective and the struggle with unwanted symptoms increases. This is always a very stressful time in the sick person's life, and in the lives of those who care for them. It is a lonely place to be.
Sometimes one hears stories that a person with mental illness had had a pyschotic episode and stuff will happen. Perhaps stories will be told of the police getting called, or someone being carried off to the hospital in a "paddywagon". Gossip. These incidents do occur, but not always nor for everyone.
But once that person is sitting across the table from you at coffee hour in Church, chances are very very good that they won't "go pyschotic on you" at that particular moment. Not everyone who is mentally is is violent. In fact, most aren't. That's just a lame stereotype. There's nothing to be afraid of. It's not catching. (Neither is everyone who is mentally ill a saint, either. Don't get me wrong.)
Prayer, friendship, compassion, support, the love of Christ: In so many ways, people struggling with mental illness are "the least of these" and those of us who are healthy of mind must remember that.