by Rev. Mary Alice Do
Often people are unaware that friends, acquaintances and co-workers are struggling with a mental illness. This makes it seem like mental illness is not a serious problem, but it is. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four people will have a mental illness in any given year; one in 17 has a serious mental illness. Add to this loved ones and you have a great many people affected.
As someone who has a mental illness and has worked in the mental health community, I know that, because of stigma, we often hide the fact that we are having problems. This is because sometimes we are discriminated against, ostracized, blamed and/or told to have more faith. This makes it risky for us to let others know so it is both hard for us to find support and people who would be willing to give support do not know to provide any.
Often people do not know what to do when they learn we are having a problem, and so they do nothing. Sometimes they are afraid because the media wrongly portrays us as being violent. Often they feel awkward. They say nothing. This is unfortunate because there is much that people can do to help promote recovery. In this article, I will share some ways that you as a supporter can promote recovery from mental illness. I will be mainly focused on issues relevant to those of us with a serious mental illness, but much also applies to people with any mental illness.
Mental illnesses are medical disorders like diabetes or arthritis. They are brain disorders. God did not cause the mental illness, we are not possessed, it is not our fault, it is not because of lack of faith, and it can strike anyone. Just as a person with diabetes benefits from treatment so do we who have a mental illness. In fact, research shows that 90% of people with supports who receive treatment become significantly better.
Recovery is even probable with serious mental illnesses. The recovery rate for bipolar disorder is 80%. It is 70% for major depression, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 60% for schizophrenia. And it makes no difference how long we have been ill, how serious our condition is or when our disorder began – recovery is possible. The only predictor of recovery is whether or not we have hope because a person without hope will not try anything. While not all of us will recover, each of us needs to be treated as if we can.
There are five stages to recovery. We need to grieve the fact that we have a mental illness, and there is a great deal to grieve. I lost my job, my apartment, most of my possessions, my dreams, my confidence and some friends. I felt I was a hopeless failure. You can be present with and actively listen non-judgmentally as we grieve.
Hope is crucial to recovery, but sometimes it is impossible for us to have hope. When this is the case, please hold hope for us and believe in our ability to change, grow and recover. Encourage us to dream and have high expectations so we don’t settle for too little. Encourage us to meet others in recovery who may inspire and give us hope.
You can empower us by encouraging us, without nagging, to try something: see a mental health professional, take medication, do something fun with a friend, exercise, etc. You can point out our smallest success, share self-help strategies, and encourage us to learn about our disorder, medication, recovery and other interests we may have.
At some point, we need to take responsibility for our recovery. You can help with this, not by telling us to take responsibility, but by encouraging self-determination. This has not been encouraged in the past. We were directed to do something and not given a real choice. The result was non-compliance and frustration on everyone’s part. Involve us in planning, give us a choice, and allow us to make mistakes (this is how all people learn). And please not do for us what we can do ourselves.
We need to have a meaningful role in life and find our niche in the community. We are most often seen as our diagnosis. We are seen as the mentally ill, the bi-polar, the schizophrenic, or the borderline, but we are, in fact, much more than our diagnosis. Just like other people, we have interests, gifts and abilities, and we are friends, children, wives, husbands and parents. Many of us work successfully. Lincoln, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Newton, and Churchill are a few of the many who have enriched our lives. So remind us of all we are and help us find our niche in the community.
Pat Deegan, a psychologist and leader in the recovery movement, said, “The goal of the recovery process is not to become normal…the goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we are called to be.” And it is possible!
Communities of faith can help immensely with recovery if religious leaders would learn more about mental illness so they know what to look for. Also, communities of faith can be places that integrate us into the fellowship and help us find a niche where we can use our talents. At my church, some of us serve as elders and deacons. It can be difficult for most of us to reveal that we have a mental illness so please treat the information confidentially. Most importantly, though, religious leaders need to speak publicly about mental illness, what causes it, that it is nothing to be ashamed of, and that recovery is possible. Communities of faith can ask the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org to do its 90 minute presentation called In Our Own Voice by some of us in recovery. Other websites where communities of faith can access information are www.mentalhealthministries.net and www.INMI.us.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles and watch for more to come during Mental Health Month.