Fear + Ignorance = Stigma

By Barbara Justus

Every now and then, someone who has happened upon our website, www.eminnews.org, will send us an email with a request for more information or a comment. We recently received one that particularly moved us because it described so eloquently what many families go through when mental illness strikes.

With her permission, we are sharing “Jane’s” story. Jane and her husband have been active members of a church in Michigan—greeters on Sunday mornings, involved in worship, music, mission work, food bank, etc. Recently, Jane’s husband became very ill and had to be hospitalized. It wasn’t cancer or heart disease. Instead he is suffering with a serious mental illness. The response from their “church family” has been devastating.

Says Jane, “No one has called. No visits. One email from the parish nurse, only because I emailed her. She said not to tell anyone about my husband’s illness. ‘People can be mean,’ she emailed back to me. She also emailed me a prayer.”

“I thought about it, and I got upset. It’s just not right. It’s not her fault. It’s just that the church never planned how to respond and never trained her or gave her any guidance on this. Ignorance + Fear = Stigma. Think we are going to have to look for a new church home.”

Jane went on to say, “We know our experience (at the church) is far from unique. I think most people in our shoes would give up on turning to organized religion for support. That sure would make things easier for churches. Just healthy worshippers with normal everyday problems. Almost heavenly. I want to go there! Sure sounds nice… ‘The Healthy Church.’ Sounds a lot better than ‘The Church of the Sick, Diseased & Unwanted.’”

Jane ends her email to EMIN with this. “Thanks for listening. There must be a reason for all of this. My husband is starting to feel better. I asked him if he wanted me to call the church office and have someone visit him, but he said no. I think it’s because he’s so disappointed and embarrassed he got sick. Pray that God helps us make a better church choice next time! Do you have any ideas about that?”

Do we have any ideas? You bet we do! The stigma associated with mental illness at church and other places is a senseless tragedy and it’s not going to go away without all of us working on it. You don’t need to make a “giant leap for mankind.” Baby steps are fine. Even wobbly baby steps are fine. But just take them. Today!

Pick up the phone and call someone you know whose family has been affected by mental illness. Ask your church to include those with mental illnesses in Prayers for the People. Start a book study at your church on a topic pertaining to mental illness. Go to the EMIN website and click on the “Take Action” tab to see dozens of ideas about how you can improve the lives of people with mental illnesses and their families in big ways and small.

Mother Teresa said that the most terrible disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted. Please join EMIN to help us free our churches from the disease of stigma and help make your own church the kind of place where Jane and her husband would feel loved and supported.