No easy cure: understanding the nuances of mental illness

My name is Sarah, and I am mentally ill.

As hard as that is to say, I’d be willing to bet that many of you reading this are mentally ill as well. And I think I would win that bet if Eastern is at all representative of the United States where, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 22 percent of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. In other words, one in five of us is mentally ill.

The statistics are rather amazing. NIMH reports that 2.7 million children have emotional or behavioral problems. And 18.8 million American adults suffer from a depressive disorder, making depression one of the “leading causes of disability in the U.S.” Bipolar disorder affects about 2.3 million American adults and, in 2000, suicide was the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds.

That’s our age group.

Yet we are so silent about the topic of mental health, especially in the church. We know what to do when a hurricane or tsunami destroys a city: we raise money, offer supplies, food, water, help. But what happens when someone we know is diagnosed with a debilitating mental disorder?

Often, we shun him, or tell her that everything will be all right. Sometimes we say, “Just pray, and God will heal you.” Would we say something like that to a person with cancer? Or AIDS?

I’ve suffered from depression since I was fourteen. That’s close to eight years of dealing with despair, hopelessness, self-loathing, overwhelming sadness-and much of it (though not all) is physiological and chemical. In that period of time, I’ve discovered how many people fail in relating to those of us who experience long-term depression.

So I’ve learned to keep it to myself, even to the point of foregoing counseling for years because I didn’t want to face my illness.

Perhaps David Hilfiker, a Christian medical doctor and himself a sufferer of depression, puts it best in his essay “When Mental Illness Blocks the Spirit.”

“Too often we assume that a deep spirituality will free us from mental or emotional illness,” writes Hilfiker. “But I’ve found that faith offers no easy cure for such struggles.”

No easy cure. That, I think, is the crux of the matter for those dealing with mental illness, as well as for the friends and relatives of people with mental disorders.

For those of you suffering from mental disorders, whether depression or something else, I want to urge you to seek help. Overcoming your illness may take time, patience, counseling and medication, but it’s worth every step.

For those of you trying to befriend us, please be patient. We are difficult to deal with and, at times, impossible. You may not understand us, but come alongside us. Journey with us, and love us.

As Hilfiker says at the end of his essay, “This is a paradox of the highest order, understood by only the deepest spiritualities: It is precisely through our brokenness that we touch God.”

Or perhaps Christ said it best: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

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