When do Americans talk about mental illness (when do church goers)?
Most news broadcasts in the last two weeks have touched on the tragedy of the crash of the Germanwings airliner in the French Alps. 150 lives were lost in what appears to have been the intentional grounding of a passenger air flight. Quickly after news of the crash surfaced, officials and everyday citizens around the world proved eager to learn what caused such a horrible catastrophe.
Wanting to know more, of course, is a logical endeavor. Government and aviation officials hope to understand what happened and avoid future tragedies. Fliers from around the world seek assurance of safe air travel.
A thoughtful intercessory prayer I heard recently asked for comfort for those grieving the loss of loved ones, but also for God’s help amid the investigation, in “learning what can be learned, fixing what can be fixed, and preventing what can be prevented.” The crash investigation currently focuses on the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, and speculates that in the past he had been treated for depression and suicidal tendencies.
Media coverage of mental illness seems to appear most notably during tragic events: shootings, mass murders, and suicide plans that take other lives.
Many Americans rightfully lament that such media attention plays a primary role in shaping public understandings of mental distress. Though mental health issues may be involved in tragedies like the Germanwings crash (and, perhaps we’ll never fully know the role it played there), equating mental illness with violent acts is a gross exaggeration.
What role can Christians play amid the distress and frequent misinterpretation of mental illness? Given the documented prevalence of mental illness, we know that sufferers live not just in our communities, but also in our congregations. They suffer. We suffer.
The Christian tradition has always included attention to health and healing, but in most congregations, prayers for physical health and world peace appear more frequently than intercessions for mental maladies. That’s true despite the prevalence of mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers helpful data. 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year. For 1 in 20 adults, those illnesses prove severe.
But, few who suffer are prone to the sorts of violent, deadly reactions that make national and worldwide headlines. Instead, mental illness can make everyday life functions difficult – attending school, holding a job, and maintaining relationships with family and friends. Treatments exist, but fewer than 70 percent of adults (and 50 percent of children) receive mental health services, and so suffering persists.
What if Christians and Christian congregations learned more and talked more about mental illness? What if doing so helped combat and ease the widespread social stigma that links mental distress and violence?
What if engaging more directly helped those who suffer find comfort amid illness? What if doing so helped more individuals receive good care – medical and spiritual?
What if congregations hosted educational sessions about mental illness or partnered with groups like the National Alliance of Mental Illness to do so? What if congregations offered prayers from the pulpit not just for those who grieve and those who face physical illness, but also for sufferers of mental distress?
Surely, the church is called to pray for those who suffer, to attend to those in need, and to comfort those who suffer. Let us equip ourselves to do so.
The Rev. Dr. Heather Vacek teaches church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Her book, Madness: American Protestant Reactions to Mental Illness will be available from Baylor University Press later in 2015. Her article, “Opening Hearts & Hands to Those in Need: Mental Illness, Stigma & the Church,” in The Hinge: International Theological Dialog for the Moravian Church offers insight about the church and mental illness.