On Mental Illness

Wednesday, October 08, 2003



According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' own relatives thought that he sufferred with a neurobiological disorder:

When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, "He is out of his mind." (Mark 3:21)

We need to be careful how we treat people who are "different" than the us. Though they may seem "out of their minds", Christ is present in other people!

There was a period where it was fashionable in Biblical scholarship to suggest that the multiple stories of exorcisms in the Gospels were historically rooted in a misunderstanding of mental health issues. However, the New Testament does make distinctions between those who are possessed, those who suffer with "palsy" or epilepsy, those who are handicapped (such as the mute and deaf) and those who are "out of their minds".

So the first lesson of Scripture regarding mental illness is that it is not to be equated with demonic possession, and God may be revealing himself in those who are "out of their minds".

Given that a state of neurobiological disorder can exist that is not attributable to Satan and demons, we know that neurobiological disorders exists, and are not a person's fault.

Other lessons of Scripture are that we are to reach out to the marginalized, comfort the sorrowing, give hope to the hopeless, heal the sick and demand justice for those who are excluded from the decision making bodies that effect their lives.

His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, commented on the Christian attitude towards the "insane" in his Encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi. He stated the following:
94. For as the Apostle with good reason admonishes us: "Those that seem the more feeble members of the Body are more necessary; and those that we think the less honorable members of the Body, we surround with more abundant honour."[181] Conscious of the obligations of Our high office We deem it necessary to reiterate this grave statement today, when to Our profound grief We see at times the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease deprived of their lives, as though they were a useless burden to Society; and this procedure is hailed by some as a manifestation of human progress, and as something that is entirely in accordance with the common good. Yet who that is possessed of sound judgment does not recognize that this not only violates the natural and the divine law [182] written in the heart of every man, but that it outrages the noblest instincts of humanity? The blood of these unfortunate victims who are all the dearer to our Redeemer because they are deserving of greater pity, "cries to God from the earth".

In order to do all of this, we need to overcome the stigma associated with mental illness. The following facts are from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill:
Mental illnesses include such disorders as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic and other severe anxiety disorders, autism and pervasive developmental disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, borderline personality disorder, and other severe and persistent mental illnesses that affect the brain.

These disorders can profoundly disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, moods, ability to relate to others and capacity for coping with the demands of life.

Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing.

Mental illnesses are treatable. Most people with serious mental illness need medication to help control symptoms, but also rely on supportive counseling, self-help groups, assistance with housing, vocational rehabilitation, income assistance and other community services in order to achieve their highest level of recovery.

Here are some important facts about mental illness and recovery:

Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders. They cannot be overcome through "will power" and are not related to a person's "character" or intelligence.

Mental disorders fall along a continuum of severity. The most serious and disabling conditions affect five to ten million adults (2.6 - 5.4%) and three to five million children ages five to seventeen (5 - 9%) in the United States.

Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability (lost years of productive life) in the North America, Europe and, increasingly, in the world. By 2020, Major Depressive illness will be the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children.

Mental illnesses strike individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood. All ages are susceptible, but the young and the old are especially vulnerable.

Without treatment the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives; The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than 100 billion dollars each year in the United States.

The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports;

Early identification and treatment is of vital importance; By getting people the treatment they need early, recovery is accelerated and the brain is protected from further harm related to the course of illness.

Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) also supports a Faith Network to provide spiritual support and advocacy to the mentally.

My wife performed several years of volunteer service for NAMI, and there are so many ways we can help. Writing congress people is one means, and simple task such as providing used clothing to NAMI Thrift Stores can also help. Most importantly, we should not cut people out of our lives who are suffering with mental anguish. Taking the time to inform ourselves and to listen to the suffering and pray for each other all helps the healing process.

While surfing through some Catholic blogs, I happenned across SacraMENTAL, hosted by Lisa, a Catholic woman...a sister of ours who suffers with bi-polar disorder. Her site reminded me to speak up about this issue.

There is a distinction between neurobiological disorders and emotional issues and that may people confuse. Those with chemical imbalances in the brain suffer in chronic manner that differs from a person dealing with issues such as bereavement, healing for physical or sexual abuse, loss of job, drug addiction, marital problems, and so forth. The chemical imbalance can often be treated medically, while emotional issues can be dealt with through counseling.

In both cases, neurobiological disorders and emotional trauma, a person of faith can benefit from seeing a mental health professional. Faith and the healing power of Christ also help people to cope with both types of situations.

It is not an either/or between ministers and therapist. The minister helps the person see their struggle in the light of faith. The minister can help direct prayer, and the relationship of a person with God in the midst of suffering The therapist can help the person find the right medical treatments, social services, and behavioral modifications or relationship skills to cope with day to day living. The two disciplines can overlap - especially in the area of relationships. However, the disciplines are not inherently antogonistic.

When I was in seminary, one professor sited a study that indicates that about forty percent of people needing psychiatric help or counseling went first to a priest, minister or rabbi. In most cases, the issue is not one of a neurobiological disorder. In some cases, there is overlap between a neurobiological disorder and addiction or emotional trauma. Yet, in all these cases, the person of faith should not fear seeking help from both a minister and a mental health professional.

We are products of our past, yet producers of our future. Our past consists of nature and nuture: our gentic inheritance and our upbringing, including things that happenned to us, and choices we made. Grace builds on nature, and gives us freedom. As we become aware of those things that have shaped our consciousness, we become free to actively make other choices. The alcoholic can chose whether to continue drinking, or to take the steps to stop. The person with a nerobiological condition can chose whether to take medication or not.

Since grace builds on nature and is often mediated through other people and our environment, psychiatric care and counseling serve the purpose of helping us to achieve the freedom God intends.

I recently ran across an issue of a magazine called Catholic Digest. In the June 2003 issue, there are two simple and easy to read articles about the relationship between psychotherapy and faith, and how to make choices about therapy. Gregory Popcak, a Catholic social worker, writes a good article advising on the differences between psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and marriage counselors, and pastoral counselors.

Psychiatrist are medical doctors best suited for those with chronic neurobiological disorders. Psychologists have doctoral degrees in psychology, and use various personality testing methods and talk therapy, though they are tarined to identify seriosu mental disorders, and in some states can write prescriptions. Social workers and marriage or family therapists are highly trained master's level counselors who use the techniques of psychotherapy. Pastoral counselors integrate a faith perspective with a specialization in one of the fields of general psychotherapy.

Popcak also offers some good general advice for those seeking a therapist. While it is inappropriate to ask a therapist what his or her exact religious beliefs are, it is appropriate to ask if she or he values spirituality and religion as healthy components of an integrated life. Popcak also says it is appropriate to terminate a relationship with a therapists who attacks your religious beliefs out of ignorance and clear bias. It is also appropriate to seek a therapist who is willing to pray with you if you ask them to. Finally, unless dealing with a serious mental disorder, Popcak advises that typical talk therapy should produce some positive benefits for you in between 12 to 24 sessions, and one should beware of therapists that seem to extend couseling for emotional issues indefinitely.

Let us make the Church a place of welcome and healing to those who, like Christ, seem a little "out of their minds" at times. Let us also pray for all people who suffer, including those with untreated neurobiological disorders.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 3:14 PM

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