The anguish of mental illness afflicts our homes, schools, churches and the streets of our nation, with the piercing screams of its sufferers often ignored or undetected until the manifestation of the pain reveals itself through the media.
Recent reports on the suicides of a primary school pupil and a tertiary-level student add to the grim statistics that reveal a problem that is becoming more and more apparent, a problem which we cannot continue to ignore or that we wish did not apply to us personally or as community.
It is difficult to acknowledge that our children, our elderly or indeed any members of our families are affected by mental illness, in any of its forms. This may be because of the fear that one of our own becomes the object of gossip and ridicule and is branded as ‘mad’. It may also be due to the sense of helplessness and hopelessness, arising out of ignorance, about how this condition can be treated.
It is time to openly state that in our schools and in the bedroom of our homes, our families and in particular our children are suffering unthinkable mental and emotional misery. They are deliberately harming themselves to draw attention to their pain.
They are ‘cutting’, taking prescription drugs for other disorders in order to deal with academic or other pressures, they are researching and fantasising about suicide. Some see death as the only relief from the stresses, the anxieties and the pain that they experience on a continuous basis.
In the schools, teachers and administrators do what they can but they are ill-equipped to provide the kind of help that is needed. We must make mental health a priority in our schools. School communities must have professional personnel to provide intervention as it is needed.
This is a call for every school to have school social workers, psychologists and child guidance officers on hand, not once a term or once a month or even once a week. When physical illness strikes, the visit to the medical doctor becomes a priority. Mental and emotional suffering must be attended to with as great an urgency.
In conjunction with counselling and possibly medication, there must also be a serious and sustained focus on coping strategies that our children and young people and indeed the general population can employ when the stresses of our lives threaten to overwhelm us. Such strategies can combine prayer with frequent, non-competitive exercise and sport, the encouragement to explore music and the other arts, involvement in wholesome community activities and an emphasis on the development of the whole person.
Perhaps it is time, too, for the society to place a priority on the promotion of careers and vocations that may not necessarily number among the ‘prestigious’, or traditionally more lucrative.
Productive work lives through the development of the unique gifts and talents of the individual who contributes to the well-being of his/her community, confer a sense of deep satisfaction and an enhanced self-image that can only benefit the individual and society.
Jesus experienced fear, pain and suffering too. As we turn to Him, let our prayers be action-oriented, trusting that He will show us how to go about healing the wounds of our land.