One of St Ignatius’ most challenging sayings was that ‘sickness is no less a gift from God than health’.
It startles us, particularly on Mental Health Day, because we think of ill health simply as an affliction that should be removed so that we can return to full health. But it also challenges us because it reminds us that people who are sick are no less precious than those who are healthy, and also that sickness, like any other situation in life, offers opportunity as well as loss. We can find life even in sickness.
It is very difficult, however, to see opportunity and to find life in mental illness. It is often well hidden. Unlike physical illness it does not show itself in broken limbs, pale faces, sores or shortness of breath. We can be healthy, active, ruddy cheeked and strong in body, but be afflicted by depression or acute anxiety. Mental illness is mysterious. And because it is mysterious it is easy to deny its reality in others. People who suffer from mental illness are urged to snap out of it, be accused of malingering or not trying. Their condition is treated as a fault, not as an illness.
Because it is not understood mental illness carries a stigma. We come to avoid people who are mentally ill, do not talk with them or try to imagine what mental illness is like. We see their condition as alien, and we fear that we might be infected by it ourselves. As a result people who suffer from mental illness become isolated and are tempted to judge themselves harshly. As they become more disconnected they are more susceptible to addictions that promise some relief from pain and loneliness.
People who suffer from mental illness are doubly handicapped. Their illness often prevents them from realising their full potential in their work and relationships. It also affects the way in which they are perceived and treated in society, so straining the connections that can help them live with their illness.
In our work at Jesuit Social Services we meet many young men and women, intelligent and full of promise, who have been forced to abandon their studies, and to limit their hopes because they are unable to study or work consistently. As a result they have been seen as problems and not as people. Once seen as problems, they can lose hope.
They may act unsociably and are then vulnerable to arrest and incarceration. Indeed such a high proportion of people in jails suffer from mental illness that an outside observer might conclude that we build prisons as places to dump the mentally ill.
Mental Health Day is important because it reminds us that all human beings are precious and that we have a responsibility to respect and to support one another, especially the most vulnerable. Respect begins with understanding and entering the inner world of people who suffer from mental illness. It then extends to making the cure and effective relief for illness a priority in our society.
In daily life respect means hanging in with people who suffer from mental illness and helping them to build and maintain their connections with the community. In many of our programs at Jesuit Social Services that is our bread and butter. It is a way of together seeing possibility even in the most testing of illnesses.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.