World Mental Health Day – reflection by Andy Hamilton SJ

On World Mental Health Day (October 10), ANDY HAMILTON SJ writes that one of the most challenging features of mental illness is the lack of understanding and empathy we receive from others.

Physical and mental health are great gifts.  We realise this when we fall chronically ill or suffer prolonged depression. Our ailments affect all aspects of our lives and can make living a full life and building warm and responsive relationships a burdensome and unapproachable ideal.

One of the most challenging features of mental illness is the lack of understanding and empathy we receive from others.  If we break a leg or have a cancer removed we have plaster casts and scars to show for it. But if we suffer from acute anxiety or depression ill people often see only our incommunicativeness, inability to concentrate on the job at hand and lack of reliability in our commitments. People give up on us and blame us.

Mental illness carries a stigma. People unconsciously fear it may be contagious and shun us. They wonder about our genes and may blame our families for it. They see our inability to work consistently and think we are slackers. We are seen as a burden on society and as losers. Our illness becomes a moral failure. If we allow our frustration and the seriousness of our condition to be on public show, we are likely to be arrested or put into hospital.

The costs for people who suffer from mental illness and for society are enormous. The human cost paid by people who live with mental illness is measured in lack of education, loss of self-esteem and inability to contribute to society. The costs to society incurred by keeping people in hospitals instead of at home, in prisons instead of at work places, and at Social Security offices instead of at clubs and societies, is also heavy.

At Jesuit Social Services we see daily in the young people with whom we work the tragedy and cost of mental illness, and the effects of blaming and punishing them.  Many factors outside their control contribute to their mental illness:  inherited vulnerability, traumatic childhood experience, emotional neglect. The lack of attention given them has many consequences:  lack of meaning, addictions, inability to find employment and often imprisonment.

Our work with them is based in the simple wisdom embedded in the Christian tradition: in respect for the precious humanity we share with them, in accompanying them faithfully, in encouraging them to take responsibility for their lives and to connect with society and never giving up on them.

These are the building blocks for all good and helpful relationships with people who are mentally ill. We all know people who have given themselves heroically to sick relatives and friends. Heroism needs nurturing. It grows out of appreciating our own relative mental health as the great gift it is and out of being compassionate to people whose lives are vulnerable.