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Comment: The Church must wake up to the stigma of mental illness

It's time our churches gave sufferers an environment to recover without ridicule or shame, says Dr Cathy Wield

It's time our churches gave sufferers an environment to recover without ridicule or shame, says Dr Cathy Wield

In his first major speech following this year's Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband took a firm stand on the stigma of mental illness and the demeaning treatment of the mentally ill and called for a culture change.

Yet so many churches won’t even admit that their congregations contain at least one person who is mentally ill.  “No,” you may say, “there’s no one in my church suffering from schizophrenia” – and more’s the pity. We should be welcoming those with severe or enduring mental illness.

One in four of us will suffer with mental illness at some time in our lives and that means one of four of the Christian population too.  Many continue to suffer in silence rather than admit to others or even to themselves that they may have a mental illness.

Mild depression is very common often caused by stress, and often named as stress, needing time off work and relief from ‘duties’ in the life of the church. We have little problem with that name.

More severe illness usually gets to the doctor, but still innocent, suffering Christians daren’t admit that they are taking medication to try and relieve the symptoms they face.  There is a huge myth that Christians are immune from depression, that anyone suffering from this disease is at best unspiritual and at worst possessed.

But it’s not like that. We are whole people – minds and bodies are not separate any more than the head is separate from the torso.  Brains can and do get sick – we see it with the serious illnesses such as stroke, brain tumours, Parkinson’s and meningitis, but also serious illnesses like depression, anorexia, OCD and schizophrenia. 

If you need proof then brain scans will supply it; there are readily detectable areas in the brain that show up the presence of these disorders and I am one person who has had that proved. 

I am a Christian.  I know God’s salvation, I read the Bible, I pray, I am an active church member.  Yet I have had brain surgery for my life-threatening serious illness – depression.  I am no less one of God’s people as a result, my personality isn’t changed.  I write books, I do pastoral work, I am a governor for one of London’s Foundation Trusts.

I believe God never changes. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  He does not look down on me, or ostracise me.  So why should I hide the fact that I am on antidepressants for life.  It is how I keep well.

Yes, sometimes I am ill.  It is an uncomfortable, miserable, ghastly time of endurance and suffering, but I know my Heavenly Father does not turn his face away from me.  I can be supported through this time by friends and family including my church family, but I have to make it known for this to happen.  Why should I face denial, exclusion and derision from the shepherds in the churches?

Let’s all stand up and be counted.  It’s not that weak personalities suffer from mental illness, though its touch may leave a delicate, forlorn, lonely, unhappy individual. With good treatment and support there is hope for any sufferer.  Let’s give them an environment to recover without ridicule or shame.

Will you leave it to the politicians to change our culture in our churches and beyond, or shall we take up the challenge and do it ourselves.  Wake up church!  Wake up church leaders, ministers, vicars, pastors, priests!  Let’s stand up and defeat the stigma of mental illness.

Dr Cathy Wield is author of Life After Darkness (Radcliffe 2006) and A Thorn In My Mind (Instant Apostle 2012).  She also runs workshops on depression for churches and organisations. To find out more contact  wield@doctors.org.uk

If you need to talk to someone, please call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 08457 90 90 90.

Useful websites:

http://www.mindandsoul.info/

http://www.samaritans.org/

http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/home

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