April 6, 2007
The mentally ill nobly attempt to resurrect their lives
by Connie Clark , reprinted with permission from The Salt Lake Tribune
I've been thinking a lot about resurrection lately, as I expect most Christians have. It's Holy Week, a time when we walk with our Lord to - and beyond - his sacrificial death.
Jesus' suffering and resurrection set a fundamental pattern. His particular acts occurred for once and for all, but we see the same pattern occurring in a much smaller way in our own lives: suffering, transformation; suffering, rebirth.
I work closely with people who know about this life-pattern - people with severe mental illness. I see them suffer, then emerge into relative peace and health. Sometimes, wellness lasts for years, but sometimes illness gets the upper hand again much sooner.
Social stigma compounds the pain of having a brain disease. Because our society refuses to deal with the realities of mental illness, those who suffer with these disorders are forced to cope with the effects of our massive denial.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26.2 percent of Americans over 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental illness during the course of a given year. That's one in four. These are treatable illnesses that respond well to medicine and various kinds of therapy. But getting appropriate treatment is next to impossible for people without top-of-the-line medical insurance - and that means most of us.
People with mental illness also experience stigma when they see movies or television shows where supposedly "crazy" people wreak violent havoc on innocent others; when they are denied employment; when they are welcomed into churches as long as they sit quietly and humbly in the pews, not expecting to exercise their role in the priesthood of all believers.
Perhaps most tragic of all, people with mental illness get stuck in prisons. An estimated one in six prisoners suffers from mental illness, according to Human Rights Watch. Most prisons are not equipped to provide comprehensive treatment to these inmates, who are often victimized by other inmates.
But I started out saying I was talking about resurrection, and I am. The good news about people with mental illness is manifold. Over the course of decades, our society has made tremendous progress in its understanding of mental illness and treatment of the mentally ill. Activists, courts and legislatures have pushed psychiatric hospitals and other facilities to stop abusive practices and to maximize independence.
Researchers have developed dramatically more effective medicines and therapeutic treatments. That these treatments remain out of reach for financial reasons is reprehensible - a situation where we still await the dawning of that resurrection light.
It's a sign of resurrection on a societal scale that we no longer perform lobotomies on helpless people with mental illness or put them in restraints for hours a day. But most inspiring to me is the witness of people with mental illness themselves. They struggle, they work, they endure and they continue to hope. As a chaplain serving such people, I am struck daily by the depths of their faith and their willingness to try again.
A man with severe mental illness who is very familiar with suffering said to me, "I'll be in chapel for all the services this week, because Jesus died for people like me, and he is all I have."
He will be there, passing out hymnals and helping make coffee. He could be on the streets; he spent years there. He could be dead; his depression has almost killed him more than once. But this week he will serve as a living witness to the power of resurrection. I am honored to learn from people like him what Easter really is all about.
Connie Clark, an Episcopal priest and chaplain in Evanston, Wyo., welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also comment by e-mailing email@example.com.
reprinted with permission from The Salt Lake Tribune