Compassion for the Mentally Ill

Carillon Article – Chaplain’s Corner – Larry Hirst – March 3rd Edition

Listen to the anguish. It will not be easy – but listen to it anyway It isn’t loud, most often it’s muffled, for we live in a society and culture like that of some many generations before us. A society and culture that views the mentally ill as deficient, as faulty, as less worthy, as difficult and we do just about everything we can do to keep these folks out of sight.

Listen to the anguish of the mentally ill. The anguish of those, who for no fault of their own, are afflicted with diseases like depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, seasonal affect disorder and many others. What anguish you might ask?

The anguish of being shunned as weird, or crazy, or maybe the more politically correct “dysfunctional”. Listen to the anguish of being unable to hold down a job, simply because you have a disease that most people do not understand and from which few will make adjustments. Listen to the anguish of those who must live on social assistance, with just enough to exist if they use the scant resources well, but of course, most people with a mental illness have trouble with judgment and the illness hinders their ability to make the wisest decisions.

Listen to the anguish of those who sometimes need to come to the hospital, but instead of being met with the compassion that a person with cancer might receive, they are met with ridicule, misunderstanding, with “looks” that make them feel uncomfortable and rejected and unwanted. Listen to the anguish of those who by virtue of a mental illness have been pushed out of their family circle, pushed out of their church family and left to languish on the edges of their worlds. Listen to their anguish. Most of the time you will need to listen closely, more often than not the anguish will be expresses in screams of silence. But if we listen with our hearts, we will hear the screams; we will see them in the eyes of those who suffer in silence.

Listen to the anguish of those whose marriages fell apart, because of their mental illness; whose mate, ill equipped to love for the worse of mental illness, left for a life less crazy. Listen to the anguish of the moms and dads who have been separated from their children because they were unable to provide the care the children needed, simply because they were ill, mentally ill. Listen to the anguish of those have been asked not to join the family at its next gathering because they always ruin these affairs. But the affair gets ruined because of the mental illness.

Few disorders of the human body are more dehumanizing that mental illness. Few diseases isolate and ostracize more than disorders of the mind. Not so many years ago, lepers were pushed out of the everyday life of the societies in which they lived. Isolated, and set apart, they were left to form sub-societies of their own, for no one else would care, no one else would commune, no one else would create a place for them. Mental illness is met with the same fear and misunderstanding as leprosy has been. People with mental illnesses have for the most part felt the pressure to move away, to form sub-societies where other fellow sufferers.

Let me tell you about Dunc. Dunc lived on the family farm, with a sister who had never married. As farms go, Dunc’s place was well, rather chaotic. He had become somewhat of a community legend. In coffee shops in the community you would often hear stories of Dunc’s exploits, like the time he was found walking naked on a 30 bellow Saskatchewan night by the local RCMP and had to be taken into custody because he would not come willingly into the warmth of the car so that they could take him home. Or the time when he was found on the yard in a wild eyed rage chopping his TV into kindling.

The stories were exaggerated; they were told with high spirits and generally responded to with a roar of laughter. Dunc suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He would often have psychotic episodes. He lived a tortured existence. But the locals made sport of his illness and added to the isolation and torture. He was the source of their coffee shops humor. Never invited over, never visited by neighbors, left to struggle with this debilitating illness, and then made sport of when the illness flared up.

Can we place ourselves in the shoes of the mentally ill? Can you imagine suffering from a depression that was so dark and deep that you constantly contemplated ending your life, simply to find a moments relief? Can you imagine being gripped by a fear so deep that you were afraid of everything; even the medication the doctors tell you will help mitigate your symptoms? Can you imagine not being able to stop washing your hands, washing, washing, washing until your hands are dry and cracked and bleeding but needing to wash one more time? Can you put yourself for a moment into the life of the compulsive gambler who is ruined financially but continues to place just one more bet because he believes that this time – yep, this time he will win and it will solve all his problems.

Maybe we can’t imagine suffering from many mental illnesses. Maybe we can’t identify with the suffering these folks experience. Maybe we can’t say, “We understand” because we just don’t. But we can have compassion. We can extend the same mercy, the same compassion, the same warmth and acceptance to the woman suffering with schizophrenia as we do to the woman suffering from breast cancer. We can extend the same courtesy, kindness and sympathy for the man suffering with debilitating depression as we do the man suffering with debilitating heart disease. We can – but will we?

You see, the mentally ill are people, they have bodies and souls, they have hopes and dreams, they are every bit as precious to God as anyone else. So what we can do is change our attitudes towards them. What we can do is chose not to discriminate against their illness. What we can do is offer the same compassion to those who suffer from a mental illness as we do to those who suffer from a physical illness.

Those of us who enjoy the grace of health have an obligation. We are to use the gift we have to care for those who are not so graced. That care demands that we treat every person, regardless of the disease that afflicts them, with the same dignity and compassion that we would treat an aging parent who has brittle diabetes, or a child with leukemia. But of course to do that, we first need to experience their anguish. Will we listen?

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