January 1, 2013 Volume 27, Number 01
Signs of the times: Mental illness stereotypes are never okay
By Josi Peters | ChristianWeek Columnist
Photo from DespositPhotos website
One of my favourite hobbies is reading signs. Some are clever or witty. Some are blunt and eye-catching. Some are helpful and some just bother me. Several months ago in front of a local church, I saw one that proclaimed, "Christians are too blessed to be depressed."
It was enough to make my blood boil. Faith in Jesus Christ does not offer immunity from mental illness, just as it doesn't give immunity from other illnesses. Many sincere and faithful Christians live with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses. These conditions are just as common among Christians as with people of other faiths or those with no formal faith alliance.
This church sign puts a burden on Christians who live with mental illness. Instead of offering the resources of the Church, or empathy and understanding, it proclaims, "If you're depressed, it's because your faith isn't strong enough. You're not trusting God." It's a message that serves only to increase people's depression and alienate them from the Church.
Another sign on another day bothered me in a different way. "Hardships are intended to make us better, not bitter." God did not create us, nor intend us, for hardship.
We were created to be young, happy, and healthy with God in Paradise forever. It's the sin of humanity, our own doing and not any action or intention by God, that causes hardship, be it physical illness, death, war, poverty, mental illness or abuse. Humanity brought these evils into the world and it's high time we stopped blaming God for them.
Hardships can, and often do, make us better people as we learn and grow through difficult lessons. And troubles are easier to handle if we align our hearts and minds with God and God's people. But the words of this sign claim that God sends the hardships to improve us. I can't believe in a God who says, "This person needs to learn wisdom; perhaps I'll give her cancer, or a mental illness…or kill one of her children."
I'd like both of these signs to invite us to bring our troubles to God, to remind us that God is always there for us and grieves with us when the human condition causes us pain and suffering.
Did you know that one in five people worldwide will experience a mental or neurological disorder in their lifetime? This virtually guarantees that we all will be impacted by mental illness, either in our own lives or in those of family members or friends. So, no one can say, "Mental illness doesn't affect me." And no one should risk stereotyping people who are affected. Sooner or later, it will strike close to home for everyone.
Nearly two-thirds of people who live with mental illness never seek professional help. The negativity, fears, and stereotypes that still prevail about mental illness are one of the largest barriers for those affected. What a sad sign of our times.
Josi Peters is a wife, mother, grandmother, and professional counsellor, working with clients in the Steinbach, Manitoba location of Recovery of Hope Counselling Services.