Over recent weeks Australian public conversation has been marked by fragmentation. Instead of discussing the shared task of warding off coronavirus and reshaping society, people have narrowed their focus to the harm done to their own social groups by the virus and the priority their own interests should have in the next stage. An earlier emphasis on cooperation for a common goal has been replaced by competition to promote sectional agendas and a search for scapegoats on whom to lay blame for losses.
In this context, the recent Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement on mental health, To Live Life to the Full, offers a timely counterbalance. It comes out of a tradition that endorses the focus on the common good evident in the initial measures taken to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. At that time there was a broader emphasis on the good of the whole society, and so of each person and group in it, on the need to act boldly and to trust leaders to serve the public good, on pride in the quiet heroism of people working at risk and on the gift that people in menial occupations were to society. A romantic view, no doubt, but one that flowed out of the realisation that the health and prosperity of Australians could be secured only by self-sacrifice for the greater good.
The Catholic Social Justice Statement embodies this generous vision. Its title emphasises the gift that each human being is, and the blessing that is mental health. Health 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 characterise a good society. In this vision, people are deeply connected with one another and with the world around them in their relationships to one another and in the shaping of their society. People care for and help one another in hard times, and those who suffer from mental illness will find respect, access to care, support and hopefully healing. It is, of course, a vision of possibility that is not realised fully in any society, Christian or otherwise. But the coronavirus initially made Australians aware that this was a necessary possibility in a time of crisis, and perhaps worth preserving beyond it.
Looking out from the perspective of mental health as a gift, the document treats seriously and compassionately the reality of mental illness in its different forms and levels. It brings terrible pain and bewilderment to the many people who suffer from it. It puts great pressures on the relationships that connect human beings to one another and to their world, causing hopelessness and lethargy and leading to withdrawal from friends, family and social life. It also affects their families and friends who have not themselves experienced mental illness. Unlike physical illnesses, it may leave no marks on the body and so tempt observers to the cruel misjudgement that through strength of will people can snap out of it. When people who have mental illness isolate themselves from close relationships, from work and other social contact, their friends and families can feel defeated and also withdraw from them at a time when they need most support.
This is the stigma that attaches to mental illness. Because it so affects people’s lives and is so mysterious, others can fear it and want to distance themselves from it. They keep silent about it both with friends who suffer from it and with one another, at a time when their friends 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. They live a shadow life that is anything but life to the full.
Stigma and the silence it enjoins can poison relationships. Its force can be limited only by an understanding of what good relationships are like — imagining people together living fully. At a personal level, it means encouraging conversation even when it is difficult. In this, social groups such as churches can play an important part in encouraging strong community ties and pastoral outreach.
Stigma does not simply affect personal relationships. It can also poison public attitudes to mental illness. The popular imagination of mental illness has been recurrently filled 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 characteristic 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. Stigma erodes the will to act decisively. To respond to it by blame or by self-laceration is not helpful. It is necessary to change community attitudes so that they include an appreciation that mental health is a gift and so compassion for people who suffer from mental illness.
The Social Justice Statement is also admirably clear that mental illness is not just a medical condition. It is linked to a network of personal and social relationships that inhibit life. In particular, social disadvantage is associated with an increased vulnerability to mental illness. 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. Governments have a responsibility not only to provide adequate care for people who suffer from mental illness, but also to address the conditions in the vulnerable communities where it flourishes.
In some areas, however, past or present government policies have created a breeding ground for mental illness. The Social Justice Statement draws attention in some detail to people who have suffered from such policies. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their history of suffering dispossession, alienation, discrimination and punitive paternalistic policies and people who seek protection. They also include people who seek protection in Australia, only to find treatment that is a laboratory for breeding mental illness. The Statement also mentions prisons whose function in society is to warehouse people with mental illness without providing adequate care for them.
These are places of darkness, which must be named as such and protested against. The emphasis of the Statement on living life to the full, however, calls to mind the light that shines in darkness, particularly in the people who live courageously within these places, and in the many people who visit prisoners and engage them in conversation, support refugees and invite them into nurturing communities, and support First Nations peoples in their demand for respect.
People who live with mental illness are not marginal in our society. Nor ought 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 respond with compassion.
Fr Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.
This article was originally published on Eureka Street, a publication of the Australian Jesuits. Reproduced with permission.