The marginalized include those with mental illness

| Deacon Jim Marschall | September 11, 2014 | 1 Comment
Deacon Jim Marschall

Deacon Jim Marschall

It is our human inclination, even among the disciples of Jesus, to focus on division and to pick and choose based on our own judgment of who is worthy or unworthy.

As Europeans preached the Gospel to indigenous peoples during the age of imperialism, many treated them as second-class or less than human. Throughout history, the Gospel has been misused as an excuse to exclude and persecute those who were deemed unworthy.

Even in this third millennium of Christianity — supposedly a more enlightened and advanced time — we continue to encounter division, exclusion and marginalizing of people.

One example that is not often considered, but is no less real, is the marginalization experienced by people suffering with mental illness and those who have lost loved ones to suicide. The recent death of actor Robin Williams has drawn attention to the tragedy of mental illness and suicide, but I fear that as weeks pass, it is slipping quietly from our consciousness.

Seek to understand

There are many reasons why mental illness marginalizes people — shame and self deprecation, misunderstanding and fear, among others.

If it is our mission as disciples of Jesus to reach out to those who are marginalized — those who are poor in any way — then it is important that we face the fears and overcome the misunderstandings about mental illness.

Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feelings, moods, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions. (Can you imagine saying to a person with diabetes, “Why can’t you just get over it?”)

Mental illnesses can affect people of any age, race, religion or income. They are not the result of choice, personal weakness, lack of character, lack of faith or poor upbringing. The good news about mental illness is that recovery is possible with the proper support and medical treatment.

Theologically, we understand that mental illness (and all illness) is an affect of the broken and sinful nature of humanity and the world that affects the whole of creation — the fall of man, the sin of Adam.

Suicide is one of the greatest tragedies imaginable. Each year, suicide claims approximately 30,000 lives in the United States. More than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors need to be treated as a medical emergency requiring immediate intervention.

Like mental illness, suicide is not a choice made by someone who is of sound mind. It is certainly not an issue of selfishness. Consider the power of the human survival instinct, all that is ingrained in us — even genetically — to stay alive, to fight for life. Now, consider the darkness and pain that a person would have to be experiencing in order for that instinct to be overwhelmed.

Go further and act

By understanding the issue and having the right information, we, as disciples of Jesus, are called to reach out to the marginalized. How do we do that for people who are suffering with mental illness or who might have suicidal thoughts?

We pray with persistence and tenacity. We turn to Christ, seeking help and healing. We let them know of our love, care and concern for them. We are to be light in the darkness and healing of pain.

We must go further, though. We must be assertive in our compassion. Encourage them to seek treatment. Offer to take them for help. Bringing up the subject of someone’s mental health is not going to make it worse. If someone’s words or behaviors lead you to believe that they are a danger to themselves or others, call 911 — intervene. Recent therapies and treatments are a gift to us from our Creator to help us overcome the brokenness of mental illness.

Beyond immediate crises, and as a person is receiving diagnosis and treatment, continue to reach out. Engage these dear ones in the activities of life and family. Show them the love and acceptance of God’s people. Studies show that involvement in family, community and religious organizations might decrease the risk of suicide, and is an important part of treatment and recovery from most mental illnesses.

In the end, it is not up to us to “save” anyone. It is not our place to “fix” the problem. And, just as we cannot blame the victim of mental illness or suicide, we cannot blame ourselves if tragedy strikes. God’s love and his gifts of grace and redemption are for everyone, even those who might not be able to see or experience them at a given time.

Deacon Marschall serves at All Saints in Lakeville, where he also is coordinator of pastoral care, justice and service.

Did you know?September is National Suicide Prevention Month. For more information about mental illness and suicide prevention, contact:

National Alliance for Mental Illness:
or 1-800-950-6264

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

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Category: This Catholic Life