By Rabbi Miriam Senturia
The book of Genesis explains that the first human being was created in the image of God. According to this teaching, we are all manifestations of the divine, the sacred. As long as people living with mental illness are in exile from their spiritual communities, an aspect of God, an aspect of the sacred, is in exile too.
The presence of God cannot fully dwell in a spiritual community that has no place for people with mental illness; a spiritual community can not be whole when part of the community is absent or invisible. So there is actually a mutual need for healing, both people living with mental illness and their spiritual communities need healing – healing in the sense of moving towards wholeness.
The time has come for spiritual communities to invite this aspect of God to come back home, to invite those living with mental illness back into the community. The time has come for spiritual leaders and communities to say that we are here for those suffering from mental illness, that we care enough to make the effort to make a place for them, a place in our communities and in our hears. Then the mutual healing can begin.
The good news is that spiritual leaders and communities can make a tremendous difference in the lives of people living with mental illness and their loved ones.
Support from caring individuals can be very healing. Support from a caring community can lead to an even deeper healing. The people I have come to know who are living with mental illness have the same essential longings as those of most people.
They long to feel them selves "at home" and welcome, to feel a sense of belonging. They long to feel connected to their community, to all creation, to all sentient beings, to God and to their essential self. They long to feel that they are truly accepted as they are: they long to feel whole.
There are two main differences that I have seen in the essential longings of people living with mental illness. One is that their longings may be more intense, because of their spiritual and emotional pain. The other is that the barrier of the stigma wall makes it harder for them to ask for support (just to show up takes such courage!), and harder for their community to truly welcome them, to provide the support that they seek.
So how might a spiritual community begin to be a more welcoming place for people living with mental illness? Begin by making a commitment to lower the stigma wall, to counter the guilt/ shame/ isolation experienced by people living with mental illness.
But how? Show up (even though you don’t know what to do or say)! Remember that "caring presence" is healing! And that the family of a person with mental illness needs support, too!
Remember that education lowers the stigma wall, takes away fear based on misinformation (most people, including spiritual leaders, know very little about mental illness – but they can learn! –(e.g. through sermons/talks, articles in newsletters, classes and etc.).
A support group for family members also gives a clear signal that a community knows that people are suffering from mental illness in their families, that the community cares about their suffering, and that there is a place for them in the community.
I hope you will agree that spiritual leadership and spiritual community involvement does not happen only in the context of religion. My belief is that it generally grows from the seeds of intention and are cultivated through ongoing effort. Which means that any individual has the potential to exercise spiritual leadership, and any community has the potential to become a spiritual community.
Ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide how we choose to respond to the suffering of those who live with mental illness, who so far are mostly living in silence, in secrecy, in shame, in isolation.
For the sake of all our mothers and daughters, our fathers and sons, our sisters and brothers, and we ourselves who suffer from mental illness, I hope that we will choose to open their hearts, and to ask our communities to open theirs as well. I hope that we will choose to advocate in our communities for becoming a sanctuary, a dwelling place, a place where those living with mental illness can feel at home and welcome, because we care enough to make the effort to be a welcoming place for them – a place where they can feel accepted and whole, because we have learned to see their wholeness. I hope that we will choose to invite these holy exiles to come home. Then the healing can truly begin…for all of us.