Mental Illness


When I was pastor of another parish I knew a family whose son suffered from severe schizophrenia. Since the side effects of his medication were unpleasant he would often not take it. Periodically, the phone would ring at the rectory and I when I answered it I could hear breathing on the other end of the line. Eventually I realized it was him. Although he would rarely say anything I would talk to him for a moment until he hung up. A few minutes later his mother or father would call and profusely apologize for their son’s action. I would spend a few minutes talking with his parent and then return to work. Despite their son’s unpredictable and often disruptive behavior these parents continued to love him. I have rarely seen such dedication in such difficult circumstances.

There was a time when individuals who suffered from a severe mental illness were locked away in an institution. Although people often said it was for their own good (so they could receive proper care) this approach conveniently kept them away from the rest of us: out of sight, out of mind. When parents had a child who suffered from a mental illness they either received a lot of sympathy from family and friends or the condition was never mentioned. As time passed, medical science learned more about mental illness and it was viewed as a condition like any other sickness.

Although today the stigma associated with mental illness has been reduced, it still exists in residual form. People insult those who disagree with them by calling them “crazy” or “nuts”. No one would use the term “cancer patient” for the same purpose. In many movies those who suffer from mental illness are either sadistic killers or loveable saps. Most of the people I know who suffer from mental illness fall into neither category. People who have severe depression are often told to “snap out of it” by well-intentioned family and friends. I don’t know of anyone who chooses to suffer from a mental illness. Since many mental patients wind up living on the street they are often treated with scorn. I have yet to hear a student tell me he or she wants to grow up and spend all day talking to mailboxes and sleeping on hot air grates.

As much as I have compassion for people with mental illness I also direct some of it towards their families. While the increased understanding of mental illness and better treatments make their situation easier, the unpredictability associated with many forms of mental illness make their lives difficult. Things can be going well for weeks or months and then suddenly everything falls apart. The greater social acceptance of mental illness within society and existence of support network for caregivers provides some relief. Yet, the lack of outward signs of mental illness (there is no wheelchair or white cane) means when an episode erupts strangers will stare unsympathetically. At that time a family member’s love for a mental patient is severely tested.

Those in ordained ministry or undergoing formation for it need to be aware of the needs of mental patients and their families. Some information on mental health issues is presented in most pastoral counselling courses and placements where seminarians can interact with mental patients are available. Yet, little ongoing formation for clergy is provided unless it is sought out by them. It is not a popular topic for study days. Nevertheless, as the stigma associated with mental illness (as with other issues like child and spousal abuse) slowly disppears the number of pastoral opportunities to help people will increase. Those in pastoral ministry will also have to overcome their own personal discomfort with this issue so as to be able to better serve their people. Attention also needs to be directed towards the family and friends of mental patients. This means listening to them when they repeat themselves and come at inconvenient times. Finally, through their attitudes and sermons clergy can foster public acceptance of mental illness as part of the human condition.

The parents of that young man were to me a living example of true Christian love.