Stigma

People with mental health problems often find themselves on the outside of society and rejected by friends. Why is this? And why this is not an option for Christians.

When the stranger says: "What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle together because you love each other..?"
What will you answer?
"We dwell together to make money from each other,"
Or, "This is a community."

TS Eliot (The Chorus of the Rocks)

This quote hangs above my desk. What is the answer to the stranger's question? Are we a community or a fragmented society? The trendy response in politics today is that we are a community, but the sad truth is that our cities are more often relationships of convenience - and only convenient for some. The 'Bold and the Beautiful' seem to have it all, but as a psychiatrist, I am acutely aware that one group placed on the outside is those with mental health problems. Seen as strange, weak and afflicted, few are part of true communities; and this is also true where the church is concerned.

Someone who has used mental health services was heard to say: "I have a dream that one day I will be able to go into a pub and say to someone, 'I have been mentally ill' and for them to turn to me and say, 'that's interesting - what did you learn?'". At present, our so-called 'community' has a long way to go! There are many who are lost and separated from what society can be.

Jesus said that he had come to seek and to save the lost, and breaking down barriers has always been at the heart of the Christian message. Jesus broke down the barrier of sin and calls us in turn to breakdown the man-made barriers which prevent people from having access to God and His blessings. There have traditionally been geographical and economic, but another barrier exists - that between the mentally well and those who struggle with their mental health. It is not right that they are cut off from the Gospel and the 'abundant life'.

Likewise, staff in mental health services have taken on many of the roles in society that priests used to have [counsellor, advocate, listener, healer]. Carl Jung even said 'Psychiatrists are the new priests". They are taught that faith in God is just a neurosis and 'Father' is a projection of their fear of being alone. Psychiatrists are typically athiest or agnostic [though this is changing] and though many are compassionate they would not attribute this to a God. Spirituality is a trendy topic in mental health settings, but it is rarely about a God, more about meditation, ethnicity and 'life forces'.

It is also true that the topic of mental health has traditionally been taboo in churches. In addition to there being a general lack of understanding around this area, churches are often poor at accommodating those who differ. They tend to exclude those who, through no fault of their own, find it hard to fit into the social groups that many others benefit from. Depression, anxiety or just low self-esteem can exclude people as easily as lack of cash in their pocket or a national or language barrier.
In and Out groups:

Sociologists describe stigma as arising because of In Groups and Out Groups. The In Group is usually in the majority and tends to be the one that 'you and I' belong to. The Out Groups is typically smaller and, because of it's isolation and sometimes it's different behaviour, is poorly understood by the In Group. People in the In Group see others in their group as having individual identities, where as those in the Out Group are seen as an amorphous mass.

A good example of this is skin colour, where we all can more easily see different facial types among our own ethnic group [eg, pointy nose, stern chin, jug ears], but tend to lump together those from other ethnic groups as being all the same and just labelling them as 'asian', 'chinese' or 'inuit'. It is no different with mental illness - the Out Group are ALL labelled as 'nutters', 'weak' or 'wasters'.

Because of this labelling, there is little attempt by the In Group to get to know individual members of the Out Group and discover that they are actually individuals with colourful pasts, great characters and strong opinions! The stigma persits!!!
The church must change:

Aren't we lucky that Jesus didn't stay in heaven and label us all as 'sinners', but came down to get to know us and do something about it! A recent book by Bill Hybels is called 'Walk across the room', and it says how we need to overcome our natural feelings of reluctance and uncertainty to go and talk to people who we might not typically talk to. This is the call of Jesus - to seek and to save the lost - and shyness cannot be an excuse. It is time for the church to lead in reaching out to those who are different, rather than dragging its middle class feet
Rob Waller, 23/07/2008