While modern medicine has come a long way in helping us understand and explain mental illness, people’s perspectives can lag far behind. Many people still think that with more faith, a stronger will, and a better attitude, such things as depression, bipolar disorder, even schizophrenia can just go away.
This outlook often leads to pinning the blame for the illness on the person struggling to overcome it. It can also lead to contempt and scorn on the part of the accuser that the accused may internalized.
“If you only had more faith.”
“If you weren’t so lazy.”
“If you just kept a positive attitude.”
Like the Psalmist, I have had more than my fill of contempt from people lacking understanding and compassion. From the colleague who advises me to “Just get more exercise,” to the church leader who quietly slips a stack of positive thinking pamphlets on my desk. From the well-meaning friend who tells me to “Take it to the Lord in prayer,” (as if I haven’t), to the recreational therapist who insists I dance the Macarena. All these things might be helpful in themselves, but none of them can remove my illness and often they reveal an underlying sense of contempt that I’m not doing enough to alleviate my struggle.
While I don’t usually dispense advice, some advice to those of you who have loved ones with a mental illness – “Don’t give advice.” It is often thinly-veiled contempt for someone you fail to understand and appreciate as an authentic person whose struggle is far deeper than any pious platitude can go.
If you are looking for an appropriate way to respond to a person struggling with a mental illness, look to Job’s friends. Not when they made the mistake of opening their mouths to try to explain his suffering, but when they first arrived and simply sat with him in silence.
One thing my wife and children learned to do well when I was going through hard times is to offer me the blessing of their presence, without trying to cheer me up or blame me for being down. As difficult as this was for them to do, it was a great help for me when I could see that my mood disorder could be somewhat contained within me – and not overly impact the mood or behavior of those I loved.
Their commitment to go about life around me also showed that they trusted my ability to battle my bipolar, with God’s help, and that as I was able to come back around, they would be there for me. Instead of being full of scorn, they showed me great respect.