Regardless of what church you attend, it is likely you’ll be led by the pastor in prayer on the behalf of and in support of other members of your congregation, community, country, or even someplace else in the world.
The pastor might say something like, “Now, let us come together in prayer for Jim who’s in the hospital recovering from back surgery, and Barbara who was recently diagnosed with cancer.” Have you ever heard a Pastor say, “Please join me in praying for Joe as he struggles with severe depression”? I haven’t. I’ve never heard a Pastor say anything remotely close to that in a church service because Joe doesn’t want anyone to know he suffers from depression. He’s afraid if they know he has depression, they might look at him differently. Some people will even try to avoid him.
My son, Aaron, first became ill with a mental illness when he was a freshman in high school, many of his teachers came right out and told us they couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just suck it up and manage his behavior. He needs to be more attentive in class. He needs to focus on his schoolwork. It’s his own fault he’s having so much difficulty. That was more than 23 years ago, but sadly I’m not sure much has changed since then. People are still reluctant to disclose to others when they have a mental illness because there are so many stereotypes and prejudices against people with mental illness.
The only way we can affect change around mental illness is to start a conversation about it. According to the American Psychiatric Association, one way we can positively influence reducing the stigma associated with mental illness is to speak out and share our personal stories. My son, Aaron, can no longer effectively share his story. His mind and body have been severely disabled due to his mental illness. Once an avid personal journalist and artist, he can no longer pick up a pencil and write down his thoughts or as easily draw a picture. With his permission, I am speaking out on his behalf and sharing his and my personal stories about mental illness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year, and that number is higher for adolescents. With so many people affected by mental illness, why are we so reluctant to talk about it? When Aaron first became ill with schizophrenia, my husband and I did a lot of research on mental illness. Mental illness is due to a chemical imbalance in the most complex part of the human body, the brain. The specific chemicals in the brain that are out of balance, known as “neurotransmitters”, are dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate. Very few people are afraid to disclose to others when they’re having a problem with their liver or gall bladder, or other more minor organs in the human body, but when the most complex part of their body, their brain, is failing they’re afraid to talk about it with people. This must change.
Interestingly, when I disclose that I have a son who suffers from schizophrenia to a co-worker or acquaintance, it is not uncommon for them to tell me about their son who has bipolar disease or even that they themselves suffer from depression. It takes only a few simple words to get the conversation started and the impact can be quite beneficial. These conversations have a ripple effect, because the more we talk about mental health with other people, the less scary and worrisome it will be.
Over time through these conversations, the stigma associated with mental illness will be reduced. More importantly, however, the ripple effect can reach beyond a reduction in the stigma. Increased awareness and understanding of mental illness can fuel change in crisis management, care facilities, and medical research. That is my prayer so that Aaron and others impacted by mental illness can have a better quality of life and be healthy, productive members of our communities.