Chopping cabbage, carrots, celery, and potatoes…. That’s what I spent a few hours doing on Monday morning, MLK day. It was a day of service organized by Washington Hebrew Congregation, our neighbors down Mass. Ave. Hundreds of youth and adults from all over the city did numerous kinds of work to help poor people. My group was prepping veggies for a number of soup kitchens. It was good, honest work to be doing. I enjoy working with food. And I emerged without cutting myself – just one callous!
Doing something active, and doing something for somebody else, are two good ways to combat the symptoms of mental illness, which often include profound lethargy, a sense of paralysis and futility. Mental illness is our “hard knocks” topic today.
I hasten to add that these activities can help with symptoms, but they do not lessen, much less cure, mental illness. Illnesses of the mind have many causes, including proven chemical causes in the brain. These are medical conditions. They have no simple or easy solutions.
I’ll bet everybody here has direct experience with mental illness – either you’ve suffered from it yourself, or you know somebody well who has. Maybe you know what it’s like to be Eeyeore – feeling listless and sad for no apparent reason. Or you know what it’s like to be Winnie the Pooh – trying to be a good friend to Eeyeore, even when that’s hard to do. I’ve been on both sides myself.
The Mayo Clinic defines Mental illness as a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
To that, I would add dementia, which is such a huge part of our lives now, as human beings live longer. These illnesses seriously affect the quality of life for sufferers and companions alike. The stress of living with someone whose mental capacities are diminishing daily is unbelievable. If you’ve lived with an addict, or if you are one yourself, you know how destructive that is. And we know that mental illness is one driver of heinous acts of violence such as shooting…although there are other factors that need addressing as well.
Now, to the Gospel passage today. In Matthew, Jesus does not begin his public ministry until John the Baptist is imprisoned, indicating that Jesus was a disciple of John’s. When Jesus does announce his own mission, he quotes Isaiah: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” This is the nature of Jesus’ message: God is bringing light where there was only darkness.
Was Jesus referring to mental illness here? No, at least not particularly. Jesus was announcing liberation from many oppressors – many sources of darkness. These included oppressive poverty, the oppression of Roman occupation, oppressive class structures in society, and yes, the oppression of mental and physical diseases. Jesus’ healing stories fill the Gospels! Many of them are mental healings – freeing persons from demons and unclean spirits. That’s the way they understood mental illness in Jesus’ day. Jesus wanted people to be healthy and whole. Jesus wants us to be healthy and whole! We should never forget that – especially when we are feeling anything but whole.
But the world is an imperfect world – beautiful, but imperfect: full of risks, hurts, disease, and misfortune. People suffer – we all suffer in various ways. And that gives us opportunity to help, to minister to people who really need it. It’s like chopping vegetables for the soup kitchen – it feels good to help someone feel a little better, or at least a little less alone.
And here, religion and science come together. Scientists have developed tools to reduce human suffering. For mental illness, many of these tools are drugs. I am indebted to several of these drugs which have helped me since I first had trouble in college with overwhelming depression. I am grateful these drugs exist. Other treatments are crucial, too – talk therapy, cognitive therapies, and even electroshock therapy for some people.
I asked my psychiatrist on Friday what one thing she’d want you to know about mental illness. She said mainly that she wanted people to understand these are diseases of the brain, causing great suffering – just as physical diseases can.
For addictive personalities, the 12-step movement has saved millions of lives, through hard, constant work – a lifetime of recovery. Twelve step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are spiritual communities, often functioning like churches. Our church has much to learn about the mutual support given in such groups, much of it one-on-one.
Coping with dementia is perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation, because the number of sufferers is growing as the elderly population is growing. Interestingly, some studies show that the actual prevalence has decreased – that could be very good news indeed. Still, how do we support people as they enter dementia, and how do we support their caregivers? Can we sit and talk with someone who has dementia? Are we willing to offer a few hours respite care?
Finally, I want to touch on stigma, which still exists in American society, and other societies (Maggie has told me it’s worse in Scotland). We should never, ever tell people to “buck up” or “get over it,” because they can’t – just as a diabetic can’t just “get over” his need for insulin. We must fight this. We must talk openly about mental illness as one of many medical problems we face, and advocate for help and treatments just as we do for cancer or heart disease. Jesus actually destigmatized mental illness in the language of his own day: by addressing demons and unclean spirits who “possessed” people, he removed the fault from the human being himself or herself. These persons were invaded by malevolent forces – diseases – that needed to be eradicated.
This is why, every so often, I speak of my own struggles with depression in sermons and articles. I’ve been treated with medication for many years. I’ve done talk therapy on and off. I am so grateful for these treatments, and the people who have helped me obtain them. For good insurance coverage and family members who understand. For friends who have stuck by me through my dark hours. I see all these things – from drugs to friends – as healing gifts from God who loves me and wants the best for me. That’s the same God who loves you and wants the best for you.
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” This is the nature of Jesus’ message: God is bringing light where there was only darkness. He wants us to walk in that light. AMEN.