Unclean spirits! People in the Bible blamed them for many illnesses. These people possessed by unclean spirits were shunned. Rejected by their families, communities and religion, they existed on the fringes of society. Some were even forced to live outside of the community in the wilderness. Today, we believe these people would likely receive a treatable diagnosis, like epilepsy, diabetes or mental illness.
Even with a diagnosis of a treatable illness, persons with mental disorders remain on the fringes of our society. Stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness foster isolation, silence and discrimination. This affects, not only persons with mental illnesses, but their families and friends.
Scientists have learned much about the brain, but not all. They know that mental illness is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. Using MRIs, researchers can see differences in brain activities between mentally healthy persons and persons with mental illnesses.
Mental illnesses or mental disorders can be chronic or an adjustment disorder. An adjustment disorder is temporary and curable, like some phobias or post-partum depression. Post-partum depression is partially caused by the change in hormones after giving birth. Without treatment, post-partum depression will generally “cure” itself within a year.
Chronic mental illness lasts the life of the person. There is no cure, but, for most of these illnesses, there are treatments that lead to recovery and an ability to live with the illness. Some depressions, phobias and schizophrenia are examples of chronic mental disorders.
Let us consider some statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
1 in 5, or about 50 million, adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness.
1 in 25, or about 10 million, adults in the U.S. live with a serious mental illness.
One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters by age 24.
I am one of those statistics. I knew I was depressed when I was about 14 years old. I told no one, because there was a State Hospital in our town. I was sure they would put me there. My church youth group sang Christmas carols there, and I knew I did not belong there.
In college, I “treated” my depression with alcohol. About 25% of people with mental illness also have addiction disorders.
In my 30’s, I developed an anxiety disorder. I was very lucky that the first drug I tried for anxiety worked. Several years later my doctor and I found an anti-depressant that worked. The drug I take is an SSRI – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Serotonin is one of the chemical messengers in our brains that regulates mood. SSRIs appear to block the reabsorption of serotonin, keeping more of it in our brains for message transmission.
About the same time, I found a therapist who treated me with cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a type of talk therapy that allows clients to become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking, so they can view challenging situations more clearly, and respond to them in a more effective way.
Today, I continue to take anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications. When I lamented to a friend that I would have to take these drugs all my life, she said taking your medications is just like a diabetic taking insulin.
The church has and continues to treat persons with mental illnesses poorly. Some ministers claim they can heal persons with mental illness. Others tell them to pray harder or to “get right with God”. This hurts not only the individual, but also their family and friends. Because of these messages, many persons with mental disorders do no attend church.
The story in our Gospel reading today says that the man with the unclean spirit just appeared in the synagogue. How did he get there? Did he walk in by himself, or did family or friends bring him? What were his symptoms? Other stories in the Bible tell us that some people sought Jesus and sometimes family or friends advocated on their behalf.
For those of us living with mental illnesses, we must be our own advocates, or find someone to advocate for us until we are able to do it ourselves. Mental health services are not as plentiful as medical services. There are stigmas about seeking mental health services. It can also take months or years to find a medication or combination of medications that work for an individual.
Although there is no cure yet, we can recover from our mental illnesses. When we do, we may need to develop new meaning and purpose to our lives. We must know and remember God loves us as we are now, as we will be tomorrow, and as we will be every day in the future.
If we are able, sharing our stories will counter stereotypes and teach others about our lives. Our stories will let others know they are not alone and may encourage them to seek help.
For persons with good mental health, we must be more like Jesus. Jesus did not shun the people. He did not call them names or pity them. Jesus acknowledged people and treated each of them as a fellow human being. Jesus helped them by casting out the unclean spirits, touching the person, or offering food and clothing. Jesus treated people with love and compassion.
In Corinthians, Paul’s point is that we, as Christians, do not share the same knowledge or beliefs, but love builds up all of us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves asks us to give more love where we see more love is needed.
How do we show love and make this world a better place for persons with mental illnesses and their families? The United Church of Christ for Mental Health website has 5 suggestions:
- Be a friend.Provide companionship, rides or food to those on the road to recovery.Listen without judgement.Pray.
- Be an inspiration.Share your story.Has mental illness impacted you or your family?
- Watch your language.Avoid stigmatizing labels.
- Be a “StigmaBuster.”Challenge negative attitudes toward mental illness among your friends, acquaintances, at work, at school, at church, or in the media.
- Learn the facts.Educate yourself about the various mental illnesses.
We can become a UCC-designated WISE congregation –
Engaged for Mental Health
Anytime and always, we must love our neighbor and widen the welcome!
Sermon January 28, 2018
I Corinthians 8:1-13