I have signed the Time to Change pledge to end the stigma attached to mental illness. I encourage you to join this campaign in the UK, or similar campaigns where you live. Like many of you, I have been close to a number of people who have struggled with poor mental health. I became my late father’s carer in the last years of his life. It was only then that I recognised how we had colluded as a family in not knowing about his mental state for years. He was relatively well supported; but this did not prevent his early death as a result of the physical consequences of his struggle with life.
Research reveals that nine out of ten people in Britain who live with some form of mental illness are stigmatised. As if the illness were not enough to cope with, they are penalised in the workplace and over welfare benefits. They are shunned and laughed at. Worse still, moral blame is still applied to those living with persistent mental illness. We are frightened of it because it is so close to us and any one of us call fall prone to it in some form. It is also scary that, while there can be periods of recovery in any illness, the condition itself may well be chronic and incurable.
Understandably, we all dread that prospect for ourselves or for our loved ones; but it does not follow that we should blame sufferers for reminding us of their need. The media do not help. Of course, it is a tragedy if a psychotic person becomes dangerous and does serious harm to another person. The way that this is often reported suggests that people with mental health needs are likely to be dangerous. The sad truth is that most of those who suffer psychosis, or clinical depression or severe bi-polar illness are only likely to be a danger to themselves as they feel they can no longer endure the isolation and pain.
The gospel record reveals that it was the wandering bedlamites of Judaea and Galilee who first recognised who Jesus really was. Like shepherds and tax collectors and other outsiders, they became his special care. People came to hear him preach because they had first heard or witnessed his power as the kind of healer who could bring peace to a person with multiple personalities called Legion. I often reflect on the person of Mary Magdalene who is set free from her prison of tormented illness to be the apostle to the apostles. A powerful sculpture of Mary as an old woman by Donatello reveals someone who bears the marks of her illness still, but is on the front foot ready to be a witness of the love which could reach even her lowest depths. Shakespeare was someone who obviously understood a good deal about mental illness. His portrayal of King Lear is an astonishing mapping of descent into mental illness and also of the arrival of new insight and reconciliation through it.
Not so long ago I confirmed someone who lives with severe mental illness who joked that, after being committed to hospital twenty-eight times, at last his religious delusions were being taken seriously. It behoves us as Christians to welcome those who come to our churches and to work directly for much better social inclusion, both for sufferers and for their carers. Research commissioned by the Department of Health concluded that faith, worship and fellowship can have a profound therapeutic impact upon the wellbeing of people living with mental illness. Isolation and despair are met by belonging and hope. We know of conspicuous examples of very talented people with a bi-polar condition who make and have made significant contributions to our history and culture. There are talented but poorly people worshipping with us who not only need our prayer and loving staying power but who also deserve our respect for their humanity and for what they offer as witnesses to God. They offer us insight into the Saviour who abides with us and knows us when all props are taken away and when even our identity is threatened.
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139.7–12)
Stephen Conway is Bishop of Ely.