Testifying to the truth about mental illness

Originally Appeared in : 9813-6/21/18

Recently, I completed an 8-hour course on mental health first-aid offered in my community through the National Council for Behavioral Health in partnership with the Missouri Department of Mental Health. If you’ve ever had a first aid course covering medical emergencies, you would recognize the format. The first part of the course was devoted to education and awareness about mental illness. The second part offered role play and advice on ways to approach people experiencing a mental health crisis. 


One of the most memorable aspects of the course occurred when volunteers were randomly assigned a card upon which was printed an illness or condition. The illnesses included diabetes, cancer, schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s, and severe disabilities, including paraplegia. We volunteers were asked to line up in the order in which the disease or condition we’d been assigned might be considered the least to greatest when it came to affecting one’s ability to function in daily life. After we made our best guesses, the instructors placed us in the correct order based upon medical knowledge and statistics. 


Many of us were surprised to discover that out of all these medical conditions, schizophrenia was the most disabling. Depression and bipolar disorder also rank high on the list of conditions with the greatest impairment to daily life function. 


So often, when we think of those suffering from mental illness we place them in a category separate from those who are afflicted with diseases like cancer and diabetes. Yet mental illness is indeed an illness, and a societal tendency for us to isolate mentally ill people or dismiss them as somehow responsible for their disease contributes to a stigma that prevents them from getting the help they need. 


What’s worse is that many see mental illness as a threat to public safety. When mass shootings take place, a constant refrain is that we have to protect society from mentally ill people. In fact, mentally ill people need our protection. 

The statement below is taken directly from


“Myth: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.


“Fact: The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.” As long as we perpetuate the stereotype that mentally ill people are a danger to public safety, we will never be able to offer them or their families the compassion and care they need. 


In our faith communities we have a special obligation to create greater awareness of the need for this compassion and care. Churches are among the first places families and individuals who are struggling go to seek understanding and support when faced with a mental health crisis. Having worked in a parish for almost 20 years, I can remember so many cases of deep suffering on the part of parishioners. There were those who endured mental illness (including substance abuse) themselves, or experienced the effects of a loved one’s mental illness. We who work in ministry must educate ourselves about the best ways to respond and maintain a network of resources to provide assistance. 


Apart from the stigma associated with mental illness, those whose lives are impacted suffer because they often find few resources for help. Cuts to Medicaid and a lack of affordable health care, with threats of more cuts looming, place significant obstacles in the way for those who seek treatment. Treating mental illness is often a long-term and expensive process. Yet unless families have considerable financial resources, they are forced to wait for a debilitating crisis before help is provided. And even then, that help can be cut short for lack of funds. 


There is also a social awkwardness associated with talking about mental illness. At best it’s discomfort; at worst, it’s prejudice. It’s still socially acceptable for us to use words like “crazy,” “nutjob,” “looney,” in our common discourse. Is it any wonder that those who suffer often do so alone and in silence?


With the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, awareness about severe depression seems again to have entered our social consciousness. We must do more than post suicide hotline phone numbers on social media. We have to educate ourselves and advocate on the behalf of all who suffer. As shocking and horrible as these high-profile suicides are, we must also pay to attention to those whom we lose to suicide daily, so many of them veterans and young people. 


In Jesus’ time, mental illness was treated as the manifestation of a person’s sin (or the sin of his or her ancestors). Jesus instructed us when he reached out to the suffering, and he often shocked his community by his willingness to correct misconceptions and transcend social constraints in order to heal the afflicted. 


If we are to call ourselves his followers, we can do no less. 


To find out more about Mental Health First Aid go to


Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at

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