Thursday, August 14, 2014

On mental illness and the Church (Part 1)

Can I be brutally honest for a moment? The church can be a terrifying place when you are broken by mental illness. It can be hard place if you are struggling addiction. It can be a scary place to share your struggles in loving someone with a mental illness. The place that should be a place of comfort, respite, and healing is more often a place of condemnation and gossip.

Why? Because we really don’t understand mental illness. And because we don’t fully understand the neurobiological disorders, we often are quick to pass judgment or give really poor advice.

Monday I was finishing up a meal with my husband on a rare evening with no kids. I had overindulged on chips and salsa (my own form of self-medicating), and I was ready for a leisurely walk in the beautiful evening and then on to enjoy a truly quiet evening at home. But as we were leaving the restaurant I received news that Robin Williams had committed suicide.

My reaction was I don’t want to believe this tragedy is real. I wanted to have one more beautiful evening where Robin Williams was still alive and would erupt in hilarity on some talk show or give a moving dramatic performance in an upcoming flick. For everyone who enjoyed the depth and breadth of his characters, the loss seems surreal. His close friends and family are dealing with a grief that is beyond words.

Even though Mr. Williams had been open about his struggles with alcohol and even depression, the news that he committed suicide was shocking. But it has hopefully helped open up a discussion about the pain and reality of depression, and the truth about how little we really understand mental illness. If such a beloved actor that gave his time and talents to help others that were hurting could be tormented by this often misunderstood illness, anyone could experience the pain of depression or other mental illness. If the man who brought Patch Adams and the Genie to life couldn’t just “be happy and get over it”, then we need to realize that such ill-given sentiments help no one.

His death shows that mental illness is no reflection on how many people care for you. Mr. Williams had the adoration of millions, not to mention close friends and family that cared deeply for him. Yet somewhere in the neurobiology of his brain, none of that mattered. I don’t assume to know what he was going through, but I do know it wasn’t a lack of people that loved him that caused his depression. So many times people that commit suicide are loved deeply by their friends and family, but somewhere in the chemistry of their brain the reality becomes clouded and the message they receive is “you are unlovable.” I have cried over loved ones in the depths of their illness, begging them to try to grasp that their brain was lying to them about reality, that despite the internal messages they were receiving, that they were loved deeply by their family. For the person in the middle of the illness, the feelings of despair and loneliness are real to them. That is their reality.

The most loving thing we can do, especially within the church, is to try to understand mental illness better, and realize there is probably more that is unknown than known in the realm of neurobiological disorders. We need to remove the stigma of mental illness and make the church a safe place to be broken. Church needs to be a place where we can come with all of our baggage, sadness, illness, and altered reality and receive support, not condemnation. To have people understand that there is a physical problem manifesting in emotional and relational problems. We need to be a place where people can share their struggles with mental illness and addictions, and know that their struggles will be handled with grace and love and not become gossip fodder.