Q: Archbishop J, does the Church really care about persons living with mental illness?
In the creation story, after God created all other species, He said, “Let us make mankind in our image.” (Gen 1:24). We read, further, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26).
We were created in the image and likeness of God. Not some of us, but all of us! Thus, each person has a unique and special dignity, not dependent upon external or internal characteristics. We are all God’s children. We all deserve equal dignity.
There is so much prejudice around mental illness. In the biblical tradition two strands exist. The dominant one comes from a misreading of the Deuteronomistic principle (Dt 6:1ff): If we obey God and the laws of God we will flourish. Many understood this as saying: If you are sick, or undergo some tragedy it is because of sin, and it is God’s punishment.
In the exchange between Jesus and the disciples about the man born blind, the disciples asked: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (Jn 9:2). Jesus’ answer was shocking for his contemporaries: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (Jn 9:3).
The most common interpretation of illness or misfortune was to see it as a result of sin. So, the person was treated like a sinner, considered unclean and excluded from polite society.
There is the other side. Philip T Yanos in his book: Written off: Mental Health Stigma and the Loss of Human Potential proposes the other side of the coin for Israel. He says: “The ‘prophets’, important figures in Israeli society, sometimes behaved in a manner that was consistent with madness. The Hebrew word for ‘to rave’ translates as ‘to behave like a prophet’, but they were revered instead of scorned” (2018, 21).
Part of the early experience is this double interpretation. Today, we no longer have the two interpretations.
Mental illness is a health issue. There are many famous people who achieved a lot while living with mental illness. Jimmy Hendrix, Mel Gibson, Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill all suffered with depression that was sometimes very severe. Each of them contributed enormously to civilisation.
In the report, The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update (WHO, 2008) it says: “Schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, dementia, alcohol dependence and other mental, neurological and substance-use (MNS) disorders constitute 13% of the global burden of disease, surpassing both cardiovascular disease and cancer”. Mental illness is real and needs to be understood and treated.
A Catholic perspective
Pope St John Paul II speaking at a conference for health-care workers, said: “Whoever suffers from mental illness ‘always’ bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being. In addition, he ‘always’ has the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also to be treated as such” (1996).
We are challenged to look again at mental illness. It is everywhere. It is in our family and our Church community. On the 14th World Day of the Sick, Pope Benedict XVI, said:
“I therefore encourage the efforts of those who strive to ensure that all mentally ill people are given access to necessary forms of care and treatment. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, services for these sick people are lacking, inadequate or in a state of decay.
The social context does not always accept the mentally ill with their limitations, and this is another reason difficulties are encountered in securing the human and financial resources that are needed.
One perceives the need to better integrate the two approaches: appropriate therapy and new sensitivity towards disturbance, so as to enable workers in the sector to deal more effectively with these sick people and their families, who would be unable on their own to care adequately for their relatives in difficulty.”
We are called to love, care and work to ensure each person is given as normal a life as possible. This requires we become aware of the wide spectrum of mental health disorders or issues and learn to spot them when they arise.
When I was a young priest, Fr David Timiney committed suicide in Tobago. It was a shock to all of us. How is it possible for a priest to commit suicide? Being in television at the time, I did a documentary to help with understanding the nature of some of the issues he must have had to face. It was a matter of mental illness that was untreated. Shame and prejudice are a lethal cocktail that leaves mental illness untreated.
We have to be better than this.
First, we must become more aware. Next, we need to understand mental illness is not a moral problem: it is a health problem. Like diabetes or heart conditions, it needs to be treated by experts. We need to be the bridge between the person and the treatment that is needed.
Mental health resources
Below are some of the resources which the Catholic Church offers here in our Archdiocese:
Key Message: Mental illness is prevalent and goes largely untreated in our society. People living with mental illness must be treated with dignity. They need our love and care. With treatment (counselling, medication, various therapies) they can live full, productive lives.
Action Step: Read up on mental illness, become aware of its signs. Assist those you know to ask for help and accompany them as they seek to improve their mental health and achieve their full potential.
Scripture Reading: Genesis 1:24–27