Throughout history, mental illness has met with confusion, misunderstanding and mistreatment—even horror, persecution and torture. Though we have made progress in fits and starts, people with mental illness have never had more hope for productive life than they have now. But despite the progress, we live in a society that is still deeply confused about mental illness.
Misinformed by the media
Have you ever paid attention to the way people with mental illness are portrayed in popular media? While some outlets treat mental illness with honesty and sensitivity, most of popular media treats the mentally ill as frightening, funny, or both. Most people don't seem to give it a second thought, but for people whose loved ones suffer from ongoing mental illness, such portrayals are hard to ignore.
Try watching movies like Psycho, Strange Brew, Crazy People, The Shining, Misery, and Fatal Attraction through the eyes of someone who struggles with mental illness. Or turn on the TV this week and watch with a new perspective. On any given evening, you should be able to find at least one show that either reinforces terror of the mentally ill, or makes light of their illness for a cheap laugh.
Misinformation, as well as entertainment that pokes fun at people with mental illness—and in some cases encourages laughter at the idea of their mistreatment—accomplishes three things:
- It further marginalizes and dehumanizes people with mental illness by treating them as caricatures. It's easy to laugh if we forget we're laughing at real people suffering from real illnesses.
- It encourages persecution and mistreatment.
- It discourages people from seeking help for mental illness. In an environment that vacillates between mockery and horror, who wants to be the one to raise a hand and say, "Yeah, that's me. I need to go to the doctor to get my medication adjusted."
Serious mental illness has mythological status in our culture. No wonder so many people in the church—just like those outside the church—have no idea how to relate to a real person who acknowledges or displays a mental illness. This general societal misunderstanding of mental illness affects all of us.
Creating a loving Christian response
In her book Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, Kathryn Greene-McCreight shares journal entries, stories and spiritual insights from her experience living with bipolar disorder. She mentions this about Christians' response to mental illness: "Christian communities still have a fear of the mentally ill. In part they do not understand mental illness, in part there is a false assumption that the Christian life should always be an easy path, and in part the problem of suffering is hard to grasp."