10 October is the World Health Organisation’s World Mental Health Day
In the early days of response to the threat of coronavirus, people looked to the good of the whole society. We encouraged our leaders to act boldly and to serve the public good, taking pride in the quiet heroism of people working at risk, and recognising the gift that people in menial occupations were to society. We realised that the health and prosperity of Australians depended on self-sacrifice for the greater good.
We should keep that spirit in mind when reflecting on World Mental Health Day. It is certainly embodied in the recent Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement To Live Life to the Full. In discussing mental illness it emphasises 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. The Statement represents a Christian vision of life lived to the full, and the network of respectful and compassionate relationships that it entails.
In this vision, people are deeply connected with one another and with the world around them. They care for and help one another in hard times. People who suffer from mental illness will find respect, support, and hopefully healing.
Mental illness brings terrible pain and bewilderment to those who suffer from it. It puts great pressures on the relationships that connect them to one another and to their world, causing hopelessness and lethargy and leading to withdrawal from friends, family, social life and work. Their friends and families might feel defeated and withdraw from them at a time when they need the most support. All might withdraw into shame and silence.
This is the stigma that attaches to mental illness. Because it so affects people’s lives and is so mysterious, others can fear and flee from it. They keep silent about it with friends who suffer from it at a time when they lack the energy and the words to describe what they are suffering. It can lead to a deadly silence, as people feel blamed, ashamed and excluded. Both they and those close to them live a shadow life that is anything but life to the full. The Jesuit Social Services program, Support after Suicide, helps people who have supported relatives and friends who took their own lives to exorcise the stigma of suicide and to speak about their often traumatic experience.
Stigma does not simply affect personal relationships. It can also poison public attitudes to mental illness. People associate it with fear-laden images of people who are not like us, who behave strangely, are violent and unpredictable, are not persons but alien powers. They are to be protected from and excluded, not protected. This prejudice perhaps helps to explain the familiar cycle of public neglect of the needs of people who are mentally ill, of outrage at the discovery that they are neglected, of public enquiries, and of continued neglect by governments. Society and governments alike turn their eyes away from people who suffer from mental illness.
Mental illness is not just a medical condition. It is linked to a network of personal and social relationships that inhibit life. A child who grows up in a violent and impoverished home, is ostracised at school and unable to learn, had no access to home care, cannot find work, lives in an environment where drugs and alcohol are abused, and lacks models of healthy personal relationships, is likely also to suffer from anxiety, depression or other forms of mental illness.
The Social Justice Statement insists that we all need to be involved in the response to mental illness. Governments need to address the disadvantage that contributes to it, and we need to change from seeing people with mental illness as a problem to see them as a gift. The emphasis of the Statement on living life to the full rests on the light that shines in darkness, particularly in the people who live courageously within these places, and in the many people who visit them in their need: engaging prisoners in conversation, supporting refugees and inviting them into nurturing communities and supporting our Indigenous fellow Australians in their demand for respect.
People who live with mental illness are not marginal in our society, and ought not 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. We, our family, our friends or our children may well find ourselves among them.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.