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Posted by on Aug 25, 2014 in Blog | 9 comments

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

The Isolation of Mental Illness

When one of our church’s most beloved women received a cancer diagnosis, we were rocked to our core. Everyone has responded with an overwhelming show of support offering meals, lawn care, running errands, cards of encouragement, and prayer vigils. At almost every hour of the day, someone from the church is in the home trying to share the family’s burden.

In the same neighborhood lives another family, equally loved and involved in church life. Their adult son lives with them and struggles with mental illness. These devoted parents are exhausted from maintaining a 24/7 vigil as they are rarely able to leave their son unattended. But where are the casseroles, the flowers, the cards, the prayers for these who weep?

Both couples recently retired and made exciting plans to travel, create, indulge grandchildren, and explore new horizons that their demanding work schedules hadn’t allowed. Instead, both now find their days revolving around unanticipated doctor appointments and treatments. Both face a daunting pile of growing medical bills. Both struggle with difficult questions of faith and healing and face emotions ranging from anger and frustration to grief and fear of an unknown and scary future. Both families have broken hearts. So why is our care and concern so lop-sided?

This oddly selective care was evident in another family. As the husband grew increasingly depressed, he slept most days and wandered aimlessly at night.  The wife worked three jobs to make ends meet, their two teenagers stopped inviting friends over, and the family became more and more isolated. Although the father had been a popular Sunday School teacher and community volunteer, when he stopped attending church his friends and pastor faded out of his life. Several years later he was diagnosed with a mild form of cancer and all of a sudden people began calling, bringing meals, and organizing healing services. The family wondered, “Where was everyone when we needed them before?”

Churches handle cancer well and I have been the grateful recipient of an outpouring of love.  I hope that anyone suffering the ravages of cancer will receive such attentive care. People cooked for me when I could no longer taste or smell; they drove me to doctor appointments and did grocery shopping when I was too weak; they cleaned my house and walked my dog; they prayed and held the hope for recovery when I was barely able to survive each day.

Mental illness, on the other hand, makes us uncomfortable and skeptical. Jumping on the bandwagon of community grief is easy. Serving those who suffer alone in darkness is more difficult. Families with mental illness are often not as vocal about their situation or their needs. It takes energy to ask for help and cultivate relationships, risking judgment, shame, or unwanted advice. Every bit of their energy, emotions, and prayers are being poured into their loved one. It is a very lonely journey.

In preparing to write this blog, I corresponded with several friends who battle mental illness. They were surprisingly forthcoming with ideas and suggestions when I asked, “What would you like people to know? How can others help?”

Just like anyone who is hurting, people with mental illness (and their caretakers) want to be remembered, loved and prayed for. Too often they suffer in isolation and shame in circumstances that are not of their making. “People don’t understand…or they don’t know how to respond, so they look the other way.”

If you want to help, offer the same support you would give to someone with a physical illness: cards, prayers, meals, errands, visits, cheerful music, flowers, or a good story. Here are some practical suggestions from long-suffering caretakers:

  • Treat us to a time of laughter… do something fun with us as a break from the heaviness.
  • “Befriend” our dad with no expectations… he has no friends.  He has alienated all of them, burned bridges in his manic episodes, neglected them in his depressions. His immediate family is all he has – and we are tired!
  • Spend an evening or a day with our son so we can have some time alone as a couple.
  • When it’s not safe to leave my husband alone, even for a quick grocery run, meals would help a lot.
  • Take a shift so I can get some sleep before I have to leave for work.
  • Listen without judging, interrupting, fixing, or comparing our situation to your relatively normal successful child, who just has a difficult personality.  “I know!  Our daughter drives us crazy, too…!” Realize that your daughter has no problem holding a job, keeping friends, managing a home of her own, managing finances, completing her degree, etc…

And some suggestions from those who suffer mental illness:

  • Remember me. Take the initiative to invite me out.  Don’t forget or forsake me, even when I don’t have much energy for initiating socially. Even if I push you away, please persevere and see beyond my fears and insecurities.
  • If you want to know how I’m doing, ask. Don’t whisper about me behind my back.
  • Don’t assume that I can choose to “snap out of it.” Nobody would choose to feel like this and usually my moods are beyond my control.
  • Direct me to resources/counseling specific to my illness and situation. They seem to be elusive.  But don’t get offended if I opt to not follow your suggestion. I do appreciate it, but it may not be the right fit for me or my situation.

Tip from Susanne:  

[Everyone laments that services are minimal and difficult to locate. Helping someone navigate the system and deal with insurance providers is a tremendous gift.]

Who are other forgotten people among us? Most of us would never overlook or ignore others intentionally. But we get so busy and absorbed in our own lives that we fail to notice the unspoken pain around us whether it is in those living next door or sitting beside us on Sunday.

Lord, forgive us for turning a blind eye on people or situations that we don’t understand and those who make us uncomfortable.

Lord, help us become more aware of those who suffer silently in our midst. Open our eyes and hearts to their pain so that no one has to journey alone.

**We would love to hear your thoughts on mental illness and the church. Please feel free to share your experience or provide insights in the “Post a Reply” section below.**

Also, click here to read a beautifully-written article by Ann Voscamp about what the church needs to know about suicide and mental health.

Next week: The Loneliness of Divorce

9 Comments

  1. Thank you for this piece of writing, Susanne. It’s practical, personal, and enlightening.

  2. The church I serve has now welcomed two different families with children who have autism. We are journeying into what it means for a church to welcome families who struggle with differently gifted children. How can we create more support, make people feel more welcome, have a safe place for ALL people to worship God? How do we educate the congregation that you can’t just “make her sit down and be quiet”? It’s a challenge and an opportunity we are ready to accept. Our hope is that we can let people with mental illnesses or challenges know that they are welcome and wanted in this church. I pray more churches proactively welcome ALL people.

  3. A topic that needs to be aired and discussed. Too often the needs of people with mental illness are not shared. Susanne, your article was thoughtful, sensitive, and so helpful in giving concrete ways to reach out and offer help. I think you need to look for a way to publish this for a larger audience.

  4. Thanks for the good suggestions. Having suffered depression, I agree with what is said. It is a dark place, and usually a lonely one.

  5. The Lord has been recently convicting me (in a gentle manner, of course) of not having compassion for mental illness. I confess that I often feel uncomfortable and feel inept in dealing with mental illness so I find it easier to look the other way. Thank you for sharing this and offering helpful suggestions for how to help those struggling with these issues.

  6. As someone who suffers herself plus has depression in her family, I appreciate your bringing attention to this gross disparity in how we respond to mental versus physical illness.

  7. Great article, Susanne. I work with many women who suffer with mental illness, and I have a sister who has a mental illness. Since my Mother and other sister have passed away, most everything falls on me which is very very hard.

  8. Susanne, this is such a delicate matter and your wrote about it with such grace and respect. Your suggestions are very helpful and timely. In light of Robin Williams recent death, I do hope that depression and other mental health issues will be brought to the forefront and that the right treatments will be offered!

  9. Thank you for writing this, Susanne. I can’t tell my wife I feel lonely without draining all my energy; I can’t imagine the infinite wall that traps one with mental illness.

    One of my parents suffered a nervous breakdown when I was young. The couple that bought groceries for our family—a widow and widower who married each other—also supported us as friends, and continue to do so now in their last years. I have the upmost respect for their willingness to enter into that broken place at the peak of our family’s dark hour, which lasted about two years. I can’t be aware of the depth of their sacrifice.

    It may be worth noting that they were not among a list of people that helped; they were the one couple that walked alongside us. Without talking about the topic publicly, only those with firsthand experience will understand the depth of the isolation.