The Bowld Gym fell silent Tuesday night as author Amy Simpson spoke to students about mental illness, the stigmas surrounding mental illness and the church’s role in facing mental health challenges.
The event, sponsored by University Counseling Services, attracted many students concerned about mental illness and eager to learn more about the issue. Simpson, who is from the Chicago area, is an award-winning author and life coach. Her books include Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry. She pointed out that although she is not a mental health professional and doesn’t speak from a clinical perspective, she draws on personal experience.
Simpson began by recounting the day of her college graduation. Although it was a day of celebration, she was troubled by a familiar faraway gaze and a stiff, half-smile on her mother’s face. The next morning, she, her husband and her father found her mother in a catatonic state in the Simpsons’ apartment. Step by step, the three helped her return to reality. Her mother returned to the hospital several days later. Simpson’s mother battles schizophrenia.
“Once again, schizophrenia had stolen the precious person who had gently cared for me when I was sick as a child, who had held me when I was sad and who had taught me about Jesus,” Simpson said.
Simpson says that her mother’s symptoms came in cycles and waves, and this time Simpson found herself holding on to grief from the repeated loss of her mother to paranoia, delusions and incapacitation.
Her mother’s illness began before she was born, but turned her family’s life upside down when Simpson was 14. Although they did not understand what was happening at the time and the illness unfolded slowly, their lives were changed forever by her mother’s first psychotic break that year. Once the illness had developed, her mother was unable to handle the numerous stress occurring in their lives during that time and became unable to understand reality. Her mother was hospitalized multiple times throughout Simpson’s high school years. Each time, she would return with pills, but side effects made things difficult until she was well enough to stop taking the pills. The cycle would repeat, and Simpson and her family had to learn to live with their new reality.
While they struggled to adjust to their new situation, they found very little sympathy and support.
“We got the message that we were alone, that we were worthy of shame and that we were supposed to pretend that everything was fine, and somehow just keep it all under control,” Simpson said. “So that’s what we tried to do.”
Simpson says that they received this message especially at church. She had never heard a single sermon about mental illness while growing up in the church, and the topic was never addressed in Sunday school or youth group. Her church was silent after her mother’s diagnosis, and Simpson found her church to be afraid of the questions she desperately needed to ask. This made her feel unsafe to open up to anyone about her family’s pain.
“Like most churches and Christian communities, our church and my college campus were both full of well-intentioned people who let fear, misunderstanding and stigma keep them from ministering to suffering people,” Simpson said.
Simpson then gave some statistics about those affected by mental illness. She says that mental illness is less rare than most people believe.
“More than 20 to 25% of North American adults suffer from some sort of diagnosable mental health problem,” Simpson said. “That’s 1 in 4 to 1 in 5.”
The ratio of people who suffer from mental illness under the age of 18 is 1 in 5. The average age for an anxiety disorder, the most common mental disorder in the United States, is 11 years old. Half of all mental illness cases begin by age 14, and 75% of cases begin by age 24.
“In the United States, mental illness is more common than diabetes, heart disease, cancer, HIV and AIDS combined,” Simpson said.
Mental illness is the number one cause of disability in North America. There is a wide range of mental disorders, including anything from anxiety, depression and mood disorders to eating disorders to schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
Simpson says that only about half of sufferers will receive treatment. One reason for this is that most people who experience mental illness don’t fit stereotypes: most look the same as everyone else. However, mental illness is harder to dismiss because it is so prevalent within our society and affects everyone either directly or indirectly.
She says that the greatest reason for suffering from mental illness is because it is stigmatized inside and outside the church. Our culture stigmatizes mental illness by associating it with violence in the media, an association that Simpson says is a gross misconception.
“The contribution of mental illness to the level of violence in our society is so small that it’s almost negligible,” Simpson said. “People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators.”
Our culture also stigmatizes mental illness through entertainment. Television, movies and haunted houses frequently make it seem that someone who is mentally ill is the scariest, funniest, or most intriguing thing possibly imagined.
The church also stigmatizes mental illness. Some churches assume mental illness is the result of demon possession. Some people will tell those suffering from mental illness to just have more faith or pray more. Some over spiritualize the problem. Some ignore them or ask them to leave when they feel uncomfortable. Some will just remain silent or speak in whispers.
“Our silence can be as damaging as condemnation,” Simpson said. “Stigma keeps people from seeking care. It keeps people from talking about their suffering and understanding how common it is, understanding that actually the person sitting next to them has been down the same path.”
Simpson says that misinterpretation causes much of the stigma, and a better understanding of mental illness can combat stigma. She then gave eight points for understanding mental illness.
The first thing to remember, she says, is that mental illness happens to the best of us. She offered Rick and Kay Warren as an example. Although great servants of the Lord, they lost their son to suicide.
“Mental illness strikes all kinds of people,” Simpson said. “Being a ‘good’ person, being a good parent, being a good Christian… none of them will ensure that mental illness definitely doesn’t strike you or your family.”
The second point to understand is that Jesus doesn’t promise to prevent or cure our illness in this life.
“Jesus promised us trouble in this life,” Simpson said. “Christian theology teaches us that we are not immune to suffering… we have great hope for this life and for the next, but that doesn’t mean God owes us a cure.”
The third point is that mental illness doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you or that you haven’t done enough for Him.
“Mental illness is not anyone’s fault,” Simpson said. “It’s a fact of life in this world, just like every other form of illness or disease… having the worst kind of trouble does not mean that God has abandoned us.”
The fourth point is that mental illness is real and must be taken seriously.
“Mental illnesses are like other illnesses; they require expert attention and treatment,” Simpson said. “Early intervention is important… sometimes getting treatment for mental illness is a matter of life and death. Experts estimate that 90% of people who die by suicide have a mental health disorder.”
The fifth point is we can’t expect people to just shake it off. Those who don’t have symptoms of mental illness can misinterpret the sufferers and might mistake their symptoms for things such as a lack of initiative or self-pity.
“Just as a person can’t will away a case of diabetes, a person with serious mental illness can’t just get over it either,” Simpson said.
The sixth point is that treatment doesn’t necessarily equal cure. With scientific and technological advancements, mental illnesses have become highly treatable, and treatments can be up to 90% effective. Treatment could include daily medication or ongoing therapy. For many, symptoms are cyclical and can return suddenly.
“If you know someone who has received treatment for a mental illness, don’t assume that person’s troubles are over,” Simpson said. “Don’t assume that person won’t need any support going forward. Try to be patient if they do need ongoing support from you.”
The last point is that families need support. Mental health systems can be difficult to navigate, access to care can be difficult, medication and therapy can be very expensive and life could be put on hold repeatedly.
“Mental illness creates crisis within families, often leaving them completely overwhelmed” Simpson said. “Families need the help of loving communities who are not too scared to talk about mental illness.”
Simpson says that both those affected by mental illness and the body of Christ need to break their silence and be heard. She says that this is important because the first place people turn to for help with mental illness is the church.
Simpson says that there are practical ways we can help those affected by mental illness. The first way is to start by humbly acknowledging our own brokenness, which will help us to be more compassionate and approachable and help us see people like Jesus does.
“We are all broken and imperfect, we are all flawed and scarred, we’re all hurting in some way,” Simpson said. “The only people who are truly effective in ministering to other people are the ones who are aware of this in themselves.”
She says that we also need to educate ourselves with a basic working knowledge of mental health problems and how they are treated, talk openly and redemptively about our own problems, notice hurting people, address our fears of mentally ill people, be a friend, use good boundaries, learn about professional help, not abandon them, give up on trying to fix people and be patient.
After Simpson finished speaking, student leaders from the Panhellenic Council, MOSAIC, University Ministries and Residence Life led round-table discussions in response to the information shared by Simpson. Abigail Berends, junior special education major, sees the dangers of stigmatizing mental illness in our everyday lives.
“The way we talk about it in our everyday language can kind of minimize certain mental illnesses,” Berends said. “There’s certain mental illnesses that people just use flippantly but don’t really have an understanding of what it actually means.”
A 5k glow run or one-mile walk called Stomp Out Stigma will be held on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. to raise awareness for mental illness and to raise money for the West Tennessee chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
For more on Amy Simpson, visit her website at amysimpsononline.com.