A twenty-one-year-old, still getting used to being away from home, starts to experience an occasional odd thought, feels like strangers are talking about him, and begins to isolate.
A veteran, struggling to find work after coming back from combat, faces terrifying nightmares, intrusive flashbacks, and a hypervigilance to loud noises that makes it difficult to go on with day-to-day life.
A new mom, feeling the pressure of everyone’s expectations that she be happy, slides into despair and depression after not feeling good enough, never being able to have any time to herself, and not getting anywhere near the support she needs.
These are not examples of outliers. These are examples of people sitting right next to you on Sunday at Mass. You share the Sign of Peace with them, hold their hand during the Our Father, and walk up to receive Communion with them.
And yet, you never hear about their struggles, their emotional hardships, their need for help.
The reasons for the silence about the struggles of mental illness are wide-ranging: from the fear of disclosing one’s own brokenness to a hopelessness that it’s never going to get any better.
Each of these reasons, and everything in between, lead back to one problem:
There is a stigma around mental illness that exists in our culture, in our families, in our medical world, and yes, even in our Church.
Yes, that same Church commissioned by Jesus to serve “the least of these,” that Church whose Pope has made a big deal of encouraging bishops and priests to “be shepherds with the smell of the sheep,” that Church, our Church, looks at mental illness through stigma-stained glasses.
As you can probably guess, this becomes a huge barrier to care for those suffering from mental health issues.
One of the first places individuals go in this kind of situation is to their Church, and if the Church is not adequately prepared to meet their needs, people who desperately need help begin to fall through the cracks.
Pope Francis has begun to shift our Church in the right direction, slowly pushing us toward the periphery, toward the forgotten members of the Body of Christ. And while this has surely been a great start, so much more is needed.
We need homilies directed to the mental health struggles we all face, we need ministries dedicated to welcoming and helping those who feel like they have no where else to turn, we need smiling faces willing to have a conversation with the person after Mass who looks alone and troubled.
We need a dramatic shift in the way we think about mental health, and we need it to start with ourselves and our Church.
Let’s make a concerted effort to end the stigma associated with mental illness in our Church. Let’s make an effort to talk about these issues that impact all of us either directly or indirectly.
Let’s be Jesus to the broken and suffering around us.
Copyright 2016 Tommy Tighe