Franciscan Spirit Blog

Holy, Wholly Healthy: The Stigma of Mental Illness

As Christians, we speak of respecting all life but, in reality, we often neglect people with mental illness.

“I knew as a mother that there was something wrong with Jenny,” said Eve. (Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.) Eve and her husband adopted Jenny, who was an extremely active child.

When she reached puberty, Jenny’s behavior became unusual. Eve, a nurse, pressed medical professionals for a diagnosis. A psychiatrist finally diagnosed Jenny with bipolar disorder. At 16 Jenny was put on lithium. Jenny’s behavior was disturbing. She was promiscuous and spent money “like a princess.”

Jenny had many car accidents because she was not responsible. She did not consistently take her medicine, especially on weekends, because it made her feel groggy and confused.

Life was a challenge for Jenny and her family. But she moved to California, married, and had a son. Then at 25 she committed suicide. Eve discovered that her daughter had signed all the medical releases and legal papers so Eve could care for her three-year-old grandson.

Eve and her husband adopted Jimmy, now 16. He attends a local Catholic high school, and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and a personality disorder. He seems to be doing well if he takes his medicine.


Mental Illness Is an Illness

When someone is diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, we offer our concern and prayers for them and accept it as a reality of life. We feel comfortable talking about it and might ask for support and prayers.

It is a different story when someone we know is diagnosed with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression. People are less inclined to share that diagnosis with others. Mental illness brings along with it negative stereotypes and stigmas.

People misunderstand mental illness. I know I have. There is shame associated with it and there should not be. The symptoms of mental illness are very real and difficult to control with medications and therapies. A person with mental illness can experience major changes in personality, have difficulty functioning socially or coping with everyday problems, or suffer from disturbing thoughts or feelings.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental disorders are common. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older—about one in four adults—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.


In God’s Image

As Christians, we speak of respecting all life but, in reality, we often neglect people with mental illness. Catholic social teaching challenges us to be open and supportive to them and their families. Addressing an international conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health-Care Workers in November 1996, Pope John Paul II said: “Whoever suffers from mental illness ‘always’ bears God’s image and likeness in themselves, as does every human being. In addition, they ‘always’ have the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore a person, but also to be treated as such.”

Families with relatives who have mental illness find their religious faith challenged. They live with uncertainty and anxiety, and can move from crisis to crisis. Families might best cope with mental illness with acceptance, offering their loved one serenity, courage and wisdom.

The seventh-century St. Dymphna is the Church’s patron saint of people with mental illness or emotional disorders. May we remember all the Jennys and Jimmys—and caregivers like Eve—and pray that we may be a source of comfort and support for them.

Learn more about mental health and faith!

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