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Mental Illness and Depression: What is Our Responsibility?

Thomas Eagleton was selected by George McGovern as his vice-presidential running mate in 1972. Rumors circulated quickly that Mr. Eagleton suffered from depression. Eagleton admitted he had been hospitalized three times for mental illness. McGovern stood by him “1000%,” initially. But eighteen days after the nomination, Senator Eagleton held a press conference in Washington and withdrew his candidacy. Sargent Shriver, the husband of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, replaced Eagleton on the Democratic ticket.

Mental illness, pejoratively labeled “insanity,” was once considered a curse from God or the devil. According to an ancient Greek myth, Hercules was driven mad by the gods, causing him to kill his own children.

The Black Plague epidemic wiped out an estimated 70-200 million people over nearly 200 years beginning in the mid-14th century. Unwilling to blame natural causes for the plague which it was believed would pin the blame on God, blame by many was placed on the devil who used witches, mostly women, to carry out this evil. A paper written in 1487 by Jacob Kramer blamed problems on women because Kramer reasoned, “Women were an imperfect animal, because they were weaker and imperfect in nature than men.”

Several children of the washerwoman Goody Glover were diagnosed as suffering from “the disease of astonishment,” symptoms that it was believed fueled the witch hunts of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. Nineteen people were found guilty of witchcraft and were executed in Salem.

NAMI reports that nearly two million people with mental illness are booked into jail each year, seldom receive needed treatment, remain jailed longer than their counterparts without mental illness and are at risk of victimization. Jailing people for mental illness creates a huge burden for law enforcement. According to a 2009 report by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 25% of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness.

The church has a “vision,” “sacred signposts,” and “Christian practices,” writes Ben Dueholm, that offer a “critical, radical, life-affirming role” needed in our world.  One of those “signposts” is “sin and forgiveness.”

We are obliged to label as “sin” casting blame and devaluing women so to assuage fear from plagues of causes unknown. We are obliged to label as “sin” the use of a noose and the label “witchcraft” to cover blindness to the sound of hunger pains emanating from a washerwoman’s starving children. We are obliged to label as “sin” jailing those who are ill when we are instead called upon by our Lord to bring them healing. We have the word “sin”  to label our neglect of the mentally ill who wander homelessly on our streets.  We must label as “sin” the double standard by which we talk openly of heart disease, flu and cancer but refuse to speak openly of diseases of the brain, mental illness.

The recent deaths by suicide of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have made all keenly aware of the tragedy of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. We can and must do something.  View the ELCA document on suicide (website http://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Messages/Suicide-Prevention).

The ELCA document published in 1999, states, “Suicide testifies to life’s tragic brokenness. We believe that life is God’s good and precious gift to us, and yet life for us—ourselves and others— sometimes appears to be hell, a torment without hope. When we would prefer to ignore, reject, or shy away from those who despair of life, we need to recall what we have heard: God’s boundless love in Jesus Christ will leave no one alone and abandoned. We who lean on God’s love to live are called to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Our efforts to prevent suicide grow out of our obligation to protect and promote life, our hope in God amid suffering and adversity, and our love for our troubled neighbor.”

See you in church.  Every Sunday we gather: for word and sacrament, to confess our sins and receive forgiveness, to worship the One worthy of our worship, to hear good news preached and to listen to the wisdom of our Sunday School teachers. These gifts will help us and our family as we “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” helping those in the family living with undiagnosed mental illness and those with diagnosed mental illness.