I hadn’t seen my friend (let’s call him Jay) for awhile, although we connect as easily as if we’re resuming a conversation from the day before. Last week, he asked whether I’d talked with Tony, a mutual friend whose wife, Karen (not their real names) has been going through significant emotional and/or mental challenges, requiring hospitalization, counseling, and suspension of outside activities.
Jay had broached a touchy subject, and we both knew it. “Emotional problems” and “mentally ill” are discussed in our culture with as much frequency and transparency as chatting about the size of your bank account. As a child, I recall my parents talking about the Jones girl, who “wasn’t right in the head.” They spoke of her as if she had a disgusting affliction that might be catching.
I told Jay that I’d left a message on Tony’s cell phone to hopefully encourage him. I hadn’t left a lengthy message, as one-way conversations can easily be misconstrued (like this blog posting). I will wait a couple weeks until I hear more about the situation, certainly enough to understand what Karen’s illness might be. It’s best not to speculate, anyway. A mutual friend told me that Tony is having a tough time dealing with this; he’s had to take off from work but the medical people haven’t yet diagnosed Karen’s condition. Word is that it’s either mental or emotional—or both.
Jay didn’t respond. I remembered that he’d gone through a similar challenge with his wife, so he was potentially a better encourager than I could be. Besides, he and Tony had been neighbors. I suggested he call Tony—let him know he was interested and that he cared. Jay knows how mental illness can isolate the family from those who might provide emotional support.
This is primarily because mental illness has been stigmatized. We’re more likely to discuss taboo sex practices (which used to be a redundancy) than if a family member has depression. Stigma against mental illness is probably as old as civilization. The mentally ill are perceived as aggressive, violent, and possibly dangerous. Stigmatizing those with a mental illness is hard to overcome in part because it comforts us “normal” people with the idea that we’re sane and rational. None of us wants to think how close we may be to a mental illness. We want to believe that “crazy” is for other people.
Mark 5 relates Jesus’ encounter with a demon-possessed man. Jesus delivered the man of his affliction but when the people who had bound him with chains came, they saw him dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Then they begged Jesus to leave their region. Think of it—fear of normalcy, compounded by expulsion of God himself.
Consider your own family members or perhaps a neighbor who was “odd.” If it was someone you cared about, the stares, whispers, and avoidance not only hurt your friend, it infuriated you because of its unfairness, its meanness. How did you or other authority figures handle this discrimination? Was it effective? How would you have changed your actions if you had it to do over again? Do you think Jesus caused it?