Mental health as a gift

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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 An earlier emphasis on cooperation for a common goal has been replaced by competition to promote sectional agendas and a search for scapegoats on whom to lay blame for losses.

Main image: Father and son on the couch (Belinda Howell/Getty Images)

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 silence 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.

 

'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.'

 

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.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: (Belinda Howell/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, ACBC, mental health, Catholic

 

 

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Existing comments

Andrew, I so respect your opinions and thoughts that I have, on occasion, printed them out and put them on the wall. However I cannot understand how you could write this piece about mental illness without acknowledging your own church as one of those ‘breeding grounds’ to which you refer. I expected that there would be some honest regret and sadness about the role of the church in allowing too often a ‘network of personal and social relationships’ that have inhibited instead of enhancing life.
Jill Sutton | 03 September 2020


Thank you Andy. I appreciate the way you always draw us back to a humane and compassionate way of perceiving the world around us as well as challenging us to treat our 'neighbour' with greater empathy and care. I applaud the way you insist that far from being a burden, those who suffer mental illness are a gift to the world, and can enrich us if we let them into our lives.
Michael Loughnane | 03 September 2020


Thanks Andrew for your wonderful and compassionate article and I thank the ACBC for their very comprehensive Mental Health Statement for Social Justice Sunday 2020. I will be as brief as I can and would like to see the points I express expanded at a later time or be given the opportunity to unpack this statement. As a past worker in mental health and a Catholic I would like to discuss what are some of the pitfalls and positives, as I see it, in the overlap of Catholicism/Christianity and mental health. 1. Literalism in the unpacking of scripture. The bible can be very enlightening but there are some books of the bible which can be dark and troubling. Revelations for instance. The temptations of Christ in the desert. Even the example in the bishop's statement about the angel and Elijah even though it was used in a positive sense can be troubling because it refers to 'voices' which can be a troubling symptom for mental illness sufferers. Informal bible studies may be unhelpful in this case and warnings should be given to anyone reading the bible on their own that their could be dangers in interpreting the bible on their own. Formal studies are needed. 2. Unemployment and lack of structure in the lives of the mentally ill and "sensitives" can exacerbate their symptoms especially if they have ruminating thoughts. 3. The Bishops rightly point out the stresses of the 24/7 economy and the pressures to succeed for students and workers. The "Sabbath Rest" and the general teachings of "Do Not Worry" can actual be a good antidote. 3. Underutilisation of women's gifts in leadership and in partnership with the men of the church needs to be addressed in light of mental health concerns. 4.Sigmatisation of the mentally ill with faulty and literal interpretations of the bible. "Unclean Spirits" and "demons" are words taken from the bible. We must go beyond this kind of conversation and acknowledge the psychiatric diagnoses. Even the use of "exorcism" needs to be done in this light. 5. Debriefing of health workers and religious workers who work with people who have undergone trauma or who have witnessed traumatic events. Overall congratulations to all those concerned. Finally a quote from Lilla Watson an Indigenous artist and Murri woman. "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together." This is a helpful quote for all those working in the field. Roslyn Beer
Roslyn Beer | 03 September 2020


Catholic hierarchy commenting and advising on mental health with its record over recent times? God help us!
john frawley | 04 September 2020


It is interesting that in his ministry Jesus forgave sins and healed the sick, both in mind and body. He was quite clear about the difference. Religion and mental health overlap, but are not the same thing. The Catholic Church very wisely recognises this and will not perform an exorcism unless it is apparent that there is no underlying mental problem which can be mistaken for possession. This is in contrast to freelance exorcists who 'exorcise' the gravely mentally ill with no thought as to the consequences. The mentally ill need to be protected from charlatans like these. These days I think some of the truly abominable pornography available on the internet and the increase in interest in the Occult and Magic could lead to a tremendous increase in mental illness in our society. This effects every level in society. The Catholic hierarchy and educational system need to be prepared to deal with these phenomena. Jesus was a reformer who wanted to bring an essentially selfish and self-centred society to act as the cohesive and compassionate whole it should. I think the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath may shock us back into being a compassionate and caring society. I think there is much going on quietly which we don't see which will change things for the better.
Edward Fido | 04 September 2020


Could our Catholic Church ever be considered as a possible ‘breeding ground’ for mental illness amongst its own clergy? And if so how is mental unhealth dealt with - within or by professionals in the field?
Margaret Atchison | 06 September 2020


One of the most interesting contributors to Eureka Street in the past was Isabella Fels, who wrote about her own mental illness and how it effected her life. She was witty and insightful and helped so many readers to understand mental illness, not just as a medical problem but as a human one. Clergy can suffer mental illness for a variety of reasons, Margaret Atchison. They are in no way immune. Whilst their faith may help them through, there is no substitute for proper medical treatment when necessary. In fact, delaying it compounds the problem. Like most people the clergy at all levels are not as aware of mental illness and its effects as they should be. This is a specific field of expertise and needs to be seen as such. Like with the clergy, there are good, bad and indifferent mental health professionals. We all need to be aware of this.
Edward Fido | 07 September 2020


My wife and I are now in our late seventies. We have been members of our parish for forty nine years. We have worked on the fete, I have served on the parish council ( when we had one) and I am a reader, commentator and eucharistic minister. However, accept for attending Mass, my wife has withdrawn from all parish activity. We have no "good" friends within our parish community. Why? We are childless and the Church and the Church community has, what appears to be, a zero understanding of childlessness. Way back in 1980 my wife and I attended a discussion on "family" at our parish. There were talks given by experienced social workers on the problems experienced by families, mostly involving lack of communication within members of the family. Questions were allowed at the end of each talk and all were answered to everyone's satisfaction. At the end I stood up and explained that my wife and I were childless and we had no problem communicating with each other. Our problem was communicating with our parish community because we did not speak their language. There was about five seconds of silence (a long time, count it) then one of the speakers stepped forward and said; " I'm sorry, we can't help you". It is silent and shows no symptoms, but, I fell my wife's pain every day.
Brian Leeming | 07 September 2020


This is an invaluable discussion and I am loath to add another personal comment, as I had hoped far, far more people would engage in it. That having been said, I cannot agree with Jill Sutton that the Catholic Church is, in essence, a 'breeding ground' for mental illness. In my long life the Catholic people, churches and schools I have been involved with have, with obvious exceptions, been bulwarks of sanity, love and acceptance. I would hate to see our society devoid of the Church's presence. We would then have a society without compassion, perhaps something like the fallen Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, Revolutionary France or Fascism. Take Christianity out of Western Society and you have precious little of worth left.
Edward Fido | 09 September 2020


The Church is the witness to the claim that the road to salvation is narrow. Without the Church, there is no way to know how the road is. There is no way to know that there is even a road. Perhaps ‘salvation’ is universal and effortless. The core of the Church are a few categorical imperatives because the road is hemmed in by these. The imperatives are neither Left nor Right. They just are and, therefore, may be inclusive in some circumstances and exclusive in others. People who insist that they, in the condition and behaviour which they wish to continue, must be included as valid elements of the Church should ask themselves whether they are expecting their co-dependency on the social aspects of the institution to outweigh those foundational categorical imperatives.
roy chen yee | 10 September 2020


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