10 October is the World Health Organisation’s World Mental Health Day
This year, we celebrate World Mental Health Day when we have moved out of the restrictions imposed by COVID. We still live, however, among the daily deaths associated with it and face the hardships caused by higher prices and depressed wages. We shall experience the same pressure on mental health as we did at the onset of COVID.
This can be an occasion for gloom or, as was the case in the early response to the pandemic, an opportunity to recognise the gifts we have and the importance of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole community. In that spirit, we emphasise the gift that each human being is and the blessing that is mental health. It is not to be taken for granted as an entitlement but accepted and nurtured as a gift. In this vision, we are deeply connected with one another and with the world around us. We care for and help one another in hard times. People who suffer from mental illness will find respect, support, and hopefully healing.
When suffering from mental illness ourselves or thinking about people who suffer from it, we can begin by telling ourselves and others how it should be handled. Though raising an important question, however, this is the wrong starting point. We should begin by recognising that mental illness certainly brings acute pain to anyone who suffers from it. It puts great pressures on the relationships that connect us to one another and to our world, and so leads us to withdraw from friends, family, social life and work. Our friends and families may also feel defeated and withdraw from us at a time when we need the most support.
This is the stigma that can attach to mental illness. Because it affects people’s lives and is so mysterious, others can fear and flee from it. They avoid talking about it with their friends who suffer from it. The result can be a deadly silence, as people feel blamed, ashamed and excluded.
One of the most heartening features of the arrival of COVID was the open conversation about its likely effect on mental health, and about how we should prepare for it. In the media, experts urged us to care for ourselves and for one another. They also encouraged those at risk to seek professional help. People who suffered from mental illness were given space to speak about their condition and how they responded to it. People were seen as persons, not as different from us. Their condition was not seen as hopeless nor to be borne in silence. We could seek and find help for it.
In this time of COVID and of economic storm, we have focused on the individual person and on the effect that crises can have on their mental health. World Mental Health Day, however, calls us to pay attention also to the social factors that can contribute to mental illness. A child who grows up in a violent and impoverished home and an unresourced environment, may be ostracised at school and unable to learn, have no access to home care, unable to find work, live in an environment where drugs and alcohol are abused, and lack models of healthy personal relationships. They will be vulnerable also to anxiety, depression or other forms of mental illness.
Many of the young people whom we accompany at Jesuit Social Services suffer with mental illness. Many, too, have backgrounds of multiple disadvantage. Their resilience is a constant source of wonder and admiration to us.
To address mental illness, both governments and we ourselves need to be involved. Governments need to address the disadvantage that contributes to it and to fund the programs that care for those who suffer from it. We, in turn, are called need to change from seeing people with mental illness as a problem to see them as a gift, and to support them when they seek the healing that they need. They are not marginal in our society. Nor should they be treated so. They are a gift which, if received, will bless society. They call on us to notice, listen to them, and to draw on our compassion. They are people like ourselves.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.