Musings on Mental Health, Stigma & the Christian Response

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One in three people will be affected by cancer at some stage in their life.

One in four of us will experience some sort of mental health issue at some stage in our lives.

Although the statistics on the incidence of these two diseases are similar, societal perception is poles apart.  Mental illness is just not talked about; it is still seen in many quarters as a sign of ‘weakness’, or a ‘character failing’.  Diseases such as bipolar disorder are often characterized thus, despite the overwhelming evidence that they have a biological basis, just like cancer and diabetes and a plethora of other common illnesses.  That there is growing evidence, and an almost universal acknowledgement in the research community that genes are a major player in bipolar disorder, it seems nevertheless to have made little impact on the public understanding of this disease.

Why is that we are more willing to be sympathetic towards someone who has a malfunctioning pancreas and less sympathetic towards an individual who has a biochemical imbalance in their brain?  Is this covert form of discrimination acceptable?  Here is what the mental health charity ‘Mind’ have to say:

‘Mental illnesses are some of the least understood conditions in society. Because of this, many people face prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives. However, unlike the images often found in books, on television and in films, most people can lead productive and fulfilling lives with appropriate treatment and support.

It’s important to remember that having a mental illness is not someone’s fault, it’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s not something to be ashamed of’.

Some church communities are excellent in ministering to those who are mentally ill; many are not, mainly because mental health issues are ‘swept under the carpet’ and not tackled head on.   This does a disservice to the Gospel message of love, acceptance and understanding.  For example, in John 13:34-35 it is written: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  This love is not discriminatory; it is not a love that is restricted as human love is by prejudice and misunderstanding.

Christianity is a faith bathed in hope – hope for the dispossessed and marginalised, hope for the misunderstood and the forgotten, hope for those who struggle daily with the burden of mental illness, and hope for those who find mental illness difficult to understand and to accept.  We are gently reminded of  this great hope in Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV), where Paul writes: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’.


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