by Gunnar Christiansen, FaithNet founder
May 26, 2006
Last Friday, May 19, 2006, the Chicago Sun-Times printed a letter to the editor by Tom Lambert that ran under the headline “Mental illness victims need our help.” This letter is an excellent example of how those in the faith community can use their influence to be advocates.
The text of Tom’s letter is below. By using his title (Deacon Tom Lambert, Commission on Mental Illness, Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago) with his name, Tom indicates that the faith community is concerned about society's inadequate attention to the needs of those with a mental illness.
Hopefully, some day the faith community will speak with a common voice concerning the need for our government leaders to focus on the major challenge that mental illness poses for the affected individuals and society as a whole. The combined voice of many congregations would certainly get the attention of our legislators.
In the meantime, however, we must not "stand idly by" waiting for someone in a leadership position in our particular faith group to speak for us. We must continue, particularly in our own congregations, to educate all our fellow-parishioners and clergy concerning mental illness in order that they can more effectively advocate for sensible outreach to people living with these disorders by our congregations and society as a whole.
Certainly our letters and personal contacts with our legislators are of utmost importance regardless of whether or not we speak for others. But if we are in a leadership position of an organization, particularly of a congregation or group of congregations, we have a great opportunity to use this position as a means of getting the attention of our elected officials. If we have the title of a clergy-person, the likelihood of being heard is increased.
Tom's statement that "as a society we have a moral obligation to care for all people, especially our most vulnerable," is certainly consistent with the teachings of all major religions. As members of a faith community, we have an opportunity and arguably an obligation to speak up individually and corporately concerning the need to give care to people living with a mental illness who are unable to adequately care for themselves.
Please follow Tom's example by writing a letter to your newspaper and legislators. Also, if you are a member of a congregation, please consider stating this in your letter.
Letter to the Editor, Chicago Sun-Times, May 19, 2006
Mental illness victims need our help
May is Mental Health Awareness month, and it is time for us to recognize that mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disease, major depression, anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders, among others, are a major problem in the United States. One in five Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. These are treatable diseases, yet we fail as a society to adequately address them.
As a member of the Chicago Catholic Archdiocesan Commission on Mental Illness, past president of the Illinois National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and as a father of a daughter with mental illness, I can attest to the tragedy of a dysfunctional mental health system in Illinois. Recently, NAMI gave Illinois a rating of "F" for its care of people with mental illnesses, one of only seven states to receive such a low mark.
As a society we have a moral obligation to care for all people, especially our most vulnerable. As taxpayers we have a fiscal obligation to see that tax dollars are well-spent. In Illinois we fail on both counts. Our recent budget in Illinois is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of people with mental illness. "We don't have the money" isn't an acceptable excuse.
The fact is, we do have the money -- we just spend it the wrong way. If we funded mental health programs to adequately meet the needs of people with mental illness, we would actually save tax dollars as well as save lives. Currently, we have more people with mental illness housed in our departments of corrections than in all of the public and private mental hospitals in the state combined. People discharged from state hospitals end up in homeless shelters due to lack of community services. More than 12,000 people with mental illness are inappropriately placed in nursing homes. Funding is needed for mental health courts, which divert people from jail to recovery. We have newer medications that work, yet are often not approved, as they are more expensive than older, less-effective medications. These shortsighted policies squander valuable tax dollars, and people continue to suffer because of them.
We need to speak up for those in our society who do not have a voice -- not to ask for charity but to demand justice. If you or I are physically ill, we expect that we should be able to find health care that leads to recovery. It should be no different if you or I have a mental illness. Please let your elected officials know you care.
Deacon Tom Lambert
Commission on Mental Illness,
Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago
Visit the NAMI FaithNet Web site for more information on faith and mental illness