By Karen Ranus
When I am giving community presentations, I often invite people to close their eyes and imagine the “face” of mental illness. “What does that face look like?” I ask. More often than not, the images people share are the faces of people who are confused, disheveled, unclean and sometimes frightening. Like the misshapen faces of lepers from Biblical times, the faces of mental illness scare us, repulse us and shame us.
Rarely has someone raised a hand and said, “The face I imagine looks just like my son (or daughter, husband, mother, brother, neighbor, co-worker or friend).” And, yet, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that one in four Americans have a mental illness.
If the numbers are one in four, the reality is this: the face of mental illness looks a lot like each of us. We don’t always recognize the face because many who struggle with mental illness (and the families who love and care for them) do so in isolation. They wear masks, unwilling to reveal the pain and anguish, fearful of the rejection and embarrassment. Families and individuals living with mental illness feel like outcast lepers and our communities of faith often fail to reach out to them, fearful of what they don’t know and understand.
Three years ago, I looked into the beautiful brown eyes of my precious 18-year old daughter and came face-to-face with mental illness. You can imagine my shock and disbelief as we sat in a mental health hospital waiting for my daughter to be admitted. Just shy of 19, she was a 4.0 student on an academic scholarship and had been accepted into an elite leadership program on campus. On the surface, she looked like she had it all together, but she had been struggling since high school. We’d noticed the changes in her senior year and sought help for her. Therapy seemed to help and the summer before college, she seemed healthier and excited for the future.
But, it was only a mask. She didn’t want anyone to see the depth of her depression nor the tight grip of the eating disorder. She was much too ashamed of the darkness that enveloped her and the fear of disappointing her family and friends was overwhelming. She pushed forward determined to stay busy and keep the depression at bay, but it only tightened its grip until she broke.
The day of her admission to the hospital, the day I came so close to losing her, I called the associate pastor at our parish. He quickly came and visited her, anointed her and offered words of hope and comfort. He knew little about the resources available, and in retrospect, I wish he had encouraged us to be more open with our parish community. I didn’t ask for her name to be put on the prayer list. I didn’t order her a prayer blanket. I did what so many family members do in similar situations, I simply retreated in shame. I’d fallen prey to the same misconception about mental illness that so many of us do—that somehow we are to blame when mental illness strikes because it is a flaw in character and a reflection of bad parenting or upbringing.
Six months later, I discovered the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The local NAMI Affiliate offers a free 12-week class called NAMI Family-to-Family for family members who have a loved one with a mental illness. During those 12 weeks I learned about the full spectrum of mental illnesses, their signs and symptoms and the various treatment options. I learned how best to communicate with my daughter and advocate for her.
But, the most important thing I learned is that no one is to blame. Mental illnesses are like physical illnesses. Just like diabetes is a disease of the pancreas, mental illnesses affect the mind and change the way people think, act and behave. Like physical illnesses, they require ongoing treatment which may include medication and therapy, exercise, healthy eating and a support system. Severe and persistent mental illnesses require the same level of attention and care as any serious physical illness, and like all illnesses it can be exhausting for the families caring for them.
With numbers like one in four, we know our pews are brimming with people suffering in isolation, shamed by illnesses for which they are not to blame. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it is an opportune time for church communities to begin having conversations about mental health. Our parish staff and clergy need to be armed with information and resources so they can better serve those who have become like lepers in our midst. We need to talk openly and positively about mental health, pray for those suffering from mental illness in our prayers of the faithful and create environments where people feel comfortable sharing their struggles with mental illness.
Karen Ranus is a parishioner of St. Austin Catholic Parish and the Executive Director of NAMI Austin. For more information about NAMI classes and support groups, visit the website at http://www.namiaustin.org. Her daughter, Sara, is in remission from her depression and eating disorder, has returned to school and is now trained to provide mental health presentations to high school teens.