In recent years, I have noticed more people in the centre of my home city of Melbourne sitting on street corners begging. The links between homelessness and mental illness have been well-documented, but the problem seems to be more in view these days.

Australia's Black Dog Institute says that one in five Australians aged 16 to 85 experience a mental illness in any year. The most common mental illnesses are depressive, anxiety and substance use disorder. And almost half (45 per cent) of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. You who are reading this will almost certainly either have experienced or will know someone who is currently experiencing a mental illness. It is an epidemic in Western countries. 

Man in mall

PICTURE: Alex Proimos (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

"Loneliness and homelessness are on the increase in our society, so it is no wonder that mental illness is too."

I have previously mentioned that our individualistic culture breeds addiction, which is also a form of mental illness. As well as that, we are the loneliest people who have ever lived. Lonely people are more likely to be depressed. In Australia, 60 per cent of us say we are lonely, and 82 per cent of us are saying that loneliness is increasing. Also, the Federal Minister for Aged Care in Australia recently said that 40 per cent of people in nursing homes don’t even receive one visitor per year. And the United Kingdom has even appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

Loneliness and homelessness are on the increase in our society, so it is no wonder that mental illness is too.

A couple of months ago I came face-to-face with trying to help someone who was experiencing a psychotic episode. Joel (not his real name) has been in and out of psychiatric units throughout his life; he has suffered sexual abuse and lived in about 70 different places throughout his 40 years. He also struggles with a couple of addictions. When he came to stay with me he had been living out of his car.

It was the first time I’ve seen someone going through a psychotic episode, and it triggered a good deal of anxiety in me. When you’re faced with a challenging situation, in the safety of your own home, your reactions reveal a great deal about where you’re at in your inner life. While in the end I believe I responded with love, I had to face the fact that my own self-protection and security was the first thing that came to mind.

In the end, Joel was taken to a psychiatric unit. It was the best possible outcome for a man who is tortured by the stigma of having a mental illness.

When I called the Crisis Assessment Team to come and help Joel, I was quickly very impressed with their response. I couldn’t do their job. They are simply amazing. They get threatened, sometimes attacked, verbally abused, but all along they deal with it with professionalism and respect. I don’t know how they do it. Some people are well suited to jobs like that. I’m not one of them.

I was also impressed with the police response. We hear a lot about police corruption and, it’s true, some of the things the police do are awful. But they also have an extremely stressful job. They also get threatened, abused and attacked, yet they dealt with this incident with assertiveness that wasn’t aggressive, and with patience. We are truly blessed to live in a country where we have such services. For governments to ever cut them is shameful in the extreme.

A couple of weeks after all this transpired, I met with my spiritual director [mentor]. I told him how the whole experience reminded me of the way Jesus approached people with demon-possession. These people were also mentally ill. In the Gospel stories, the affliction these people carried was akin to mental illness. They were not themselves and Jesus treated them accordingly. He always saw through the condition to the person and who they really were. He saw them as people with dignity who were suffering. He then rebuked the demons, got rid of them and made sure the people were treated well. 

Take the case of the Gedarene demoniac in Mark, chapter five. The man was in inner torture because of his affliction. He would gain superhuman strength, he would cry out and self-harm. These are some of the symptoms of people with severe mental illness today. Like many people with mental illness, he was also an outcast, too difficult for polite society to deal with.

But what does Jesus do? He goes to the source of the problem. He rebukes the evil spirit because He sees what it is doing to the man. He doesn’t blame the man at all for his condition, doesn’t tell him to repent, and doesn’t tell him he must have some sin in his life for him to have this condition. Jesus treats the man with complete dignity, something we can learn a lot about, and something I saw from the mental health workers and the police when they came to help Joel.

"Too often we treat people who are different with shame. They are not different at all; they have the same illness as us, just in a different form. We are all afflicted with the same disease which only the Spirit of God can heal."

People with mental illness are often put on the margins of society, just like the Gedarene demoniac. That’s why many of them are homeless. We don’t know what to do with them. I literally thank God for mental health workers. Whether they profess a Christian faith or not, they show a level of Christlikeness that is worth following. If it wasn’t for them and the services they provide, there would be many more people with mental illness on the streets.

I believe that what this boils down to is that we all have a disease called sin. That word (“sin”) has had a negative reputation for a long time, but if you look at the way Jesus treated it in the Gedarene demoniac, he did so like it was something that needed surgery to remove. Soul surgery if you like. It didn’t define the man, but it did affect everything about his life.

Too often we treat people who are different with shame. They are not different at all; they have the same illness as us, just in a different form. We are all afflicted with the same disease which only the Spirit of God can heal. The ways in which it is healed are different for each person. With some people, it might be through prayer, while for others it might be through medication and treatment in a psychiatric unit. Or a combination of these and other ways.

Mental illness does not define the person with it. Jesus proves that in His love for the Gedarene demoniac. He sees who the person really is: loved beyond measure. With Jesus there is no stigma and no shame. Just full acceptance and dignity. An embrace of love in the same way we would want to be treated. I just hope Joel sees how much he is loved by this Jesus.