Chris Hannay: How or why has mental health been stigmatized? Do you know of ways in which some communities have to tried to relieve that stigma?
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I believe that in every community, irrespective of religious differences, mental illness was stigmatized. People with mental illness were ostracized and thought of as unproductive members of society. However, with better education and change of social attitudes, we are now beginning to understand the problems better and have more compassion for people who suffer from mental illness.
Howard Voss-Altman: Religious communities are hardly different from other communities where fear and suspicion carry the day. Unlike a physical ailment or a disease, mental health issues are not so easily understood. There is still a belief that if people suffering from depression could only smile more and have a more positive, sunny outlook, they would be able to overcome the depression. In addition, religious communities thrive on social interaction, and when that social interaction is limited or undermined by mental health issues, the fabric of the community is threatened. It’s simply easier to restore the social order and ignore or dismiss the offending party.
Sheema Khan: I think the stigmatization depends on the culture. In North America, where individualism is prized, mental-health issues have been perceived as a sign of individual weakness – especially amongst men. In cultures where community norms are given greater weight, disabilities (whether physical or mental) have been viewed as an object of shame for the family, and thus, a sign of “lower” status. In either case, it is the feeling of “I/we can't let others know, otherwise what will they think of me/us?” syndrome. Thus, many suffer in isolation, in silos. Perhaps the first step is breaking down the silos...
Howard Voss-Altman: We certainly experience that in the Jewish community. Mental illness, depression, suicide brings nothing but shame upon the family and the community. We are now moving past those attitudes, but this is only in recent years. We still suffer from the “what will the neighbours think” mentality.
Lorna Dueck: To pressure people into thinking “if you just have faith and pray more this will pass” doesn’t help. I do know there are Christian clinics and faith professionals for a variety of mental needs, and they are run off their feet. I think hearing clergy address mental health issues is important, and creating venues and discussions that set up how we can be helped by each other in this stress should be publicized. For example, last week I saw I notice in a church bulletin that someone needed help with their Alzheimer’s family member for two hours a day, and the church was paying that support out of its benevolent fund. Practical help that brings real hope when a need is permanent is the job of Christian love.
Chris Hannay: If these stigmatized feelings exist within many communities, is there any difference in how a faith community can address mental health issues, compared to another social network an individual may have? (Other friends and family not bound by faith, for example.)
Howard Voss-Altman: That’s a good question. While non-Orthodox Jews are not particularly reliant on prayers or intercessionary help, belonging to a community of meaning – a community organized for the purpose of exploring the sacred and the holy – can provide additional solace and comfort. It may be that the clergy has access to mental health professionals. It may be that someone else in the community is suffering as well and can be a source of information and counselling. It may be that meditations on healing and personal strife will provide some additional insight into their particular struggles. Many of our patriarchs (Abraham, Jacob, and particularly Isaac) suffered from intense sadness and depression, and some people may identify with their struggles and take comfort in them. One never knows where people will find support, but religious communities can potentially offer a unique response that might not be available from just a network of friends or family.