Mental illness and America

Sadly, in our American society, even though it’s the 21st century, there is still a strong and harsh stigma for people suffering from mental illness. In the minds of many people the mentally ill are freaks, perverts, are very dangerous, and they feel the mentally ill should be locked away in mental hospitals to “protect” society. Such antiquated thinking is sadly still widespread. Ignorance of mental health issues is vast and pervasive. Even many college-educated people have a very poor understanding of mental illness. There is also, I’ve noticed, far too often a lack of empathy and compassion. Tragically, I must say this holds true for the majority of Christians. It’s not uncommon for pastors to teach their congregations that mental illness is a sin issue and must be addressed strictly in a spiritual manner. It eschews psychiatric medications or secular therapies. Numerous Christians even believe in the medieval idea that mental illness is a manifestation of demonic activity.

When many people think about mental illness they have negative associations based around it. They may associate mental illness with serial killers, mass shooters, and other sociopaths. The fact is that the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness will never exhibit any violence. The media and entertainment industry are a major reason for stigma for the people suffering from mental illness, with sensationalistic reporting which focuses almost exclusively on negative news reports, and never positive ones, when it comes to people with mental illness. And in movies and TV shows the villain is often portrayed as someone who is mentally unbalanced if not suffering from outright mental illness. Here is a good paper on the topic of violence among the mentally ill.

People suffering from mental illness have a wide variety of social issues that they deal with which makes their lives more difficult, especially those who have severe mental illness as I do. Many women, even Christian women, want nothing to do with a man who suffers from mental illness. If the man suffered from diabetes or some other ailment the woman would not think twice about it. But because we suffer from a disease of the mind there is still an extremely high level of stigma for us. The mentally ill also have a harder time finding a spouse. Those suffering from mental illness also have a much more challenging time finding gainful employment. Many employers want nothing to do with someone who discloses or who they suspect has a mental illness. There is widespread discrimination and bigotry against the mentally ill. It is the last acceptable prejudice in our modern and “progressive” society, yet you rarely hear even a word about it.

Overall, the mentally ill are more likely to act out violently than the general public. However, this association is not very strong. The overwhelming majority of people with diagnosed mental disorders do not engage in violence. Also, the manner in which mental illness contributes to violence when it does varies considerably and is often far from clear.

Sadly, as this paper attests, today in America our prisons are being used to warehouse the mentally ill. Conventional wisdom for most of modern history was that people suffering from mental disorders should be locked up in sanitoriums and mental hospitals (which often had appalling amounts of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse). Barbaric procedures like electroshock therapy and lobotomies (part of the brain is removed) were common. In the later part of the 20th-century conventional wisdom in psychiatry changed and many state mental hospitals were closed (including Mayview here in southwestern Pennsylvania where my mother and sister Vi spent time). The idea was to get the mentally ill living independently on their own or in a group home setting. This has pros and cons. Overall, I think it’s great that the mentally ill are able to live productive lives in freedom. But I think allowing those prone to violence to live free in society is a major mistake that has oftentimes tragic consequences and is responsible for the associations of violence with the mentally ill in the general public’s minds. However, I don’t think prisons are the answer for most of the mentally ill currently in prison. Only those who have committed truly violent and horrific acts should be kept in prison.

Going back to how the Body of Christ treats the mentally ill, I think we need to equip seminaries with curricula targeted towards how the Church can best serve the needs of the mentally ill. Seminary professors need to be teaching this curriculum to future pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. At the level of the local church, I think the pastoral team has to take the lead from the head minister. He needs to instruct his staff to spend extra time welcoming those who disclose or who are suspected of suffering from mental illness. They need to be sensitive to their conditions and respectful. The staff should also help the mentally ill to get connected with friends in the church. The congregants can invite the mentally ill over for dinner, invite them to Bible study, make them truly feel a valued part of the church community. And parents should not discourage their daughters from dating or marrying a brother in Christ who suffers from mental illness.

I think America could learn a lot by studying the solutions Western European countries have developed for dealing with mental illness. From talking to my dear brother in Christ Peter, who lives in Sweden (he suffers from schizophrenia as do I), they have apartment buildings with 24×7 in-house staff to assist the mentally ill who get the dignity and freedom of living on their own. Also, the economics must change drastically. Countries like Sweden give people who are disabled due to mental illness around $3,000 per month to live on. Whereas here in America, those on SSI, like my sister Vi, get less than $900, and those on Social Security disability, like me, get just over $1,000! Western Europe is far more generous than America when it comes to spending on mental health. And there is far less ignorance. If America spent a fraction of its defense budget on the mentally ill it would have a remarkable effect. Yet, due to apathy, widespread ignorance, and stigma among policymakers and politicians I don’t expect much to change. In my entire adult life, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard an American politician of any state talk about increasing funding for the mentally ill substantially. This country gives trillions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, yet can’t spend more on those who are most in need and who are most vulnerable. It’s disgusting! When you talk about spending more on the mentally ill, or God forbid, a tax to help pay for it, you are quickly dismissed as a socialist by many Americans. How sad. How un-Christ-like! In the social pecking order we, the mentally ill, are the most disenfranchised. We are on the bottom! You hear much talk about racism in America and this problem is much more prevalent than actual racism and affects a much larger percentage of Americans (50% mentally ill compared to 12% blacks).

We need to reach people when they are still young. We need comprehensive mental health education and support in all schools from K-12 and in colleges.

By the way, mental illnesses are widespread in America. Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (52.9 million in 2020). Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States.

  • More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
  • 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
  • 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

By the way, the entertainment industry rarely produces content that is positive with respect to the mentally ill. I recently watched an excellent TV episode of the show Highway to Heaven (Season 3, Episode 19 – “Normal People“) centering on this topic. Jonathan and Mark’s assignment is at a transitional living facility (halfway house as they say in the show) where 8 people are being transitioned from mental hospitals to independence and reintegration into society. It was excellent how it portrayed the stigma and pain of those who suffer from mental illness, and the fear and rejection by those who were ignorant of mental illness. Eventually, some of the community sees that the mentally ill are just normal people like themselves. Highway to Heaven was a groundbreaking show. Michael Landon dealt with social issues that were rarely portrayed on TV. This episode aired on February 11, 1987, which was sadly over 35 years ago! We need to demand more quality entertainment focusing on educating and telling the stories of people who suffer from mental illness. You can watch this episode below.

6 responses to “Mental illness and America”

  1. Very well written..
    Yes, the United States could take a lesson from European countries on the treatment of mental illness..
    Sadly, this has become more of a political issue, leaving our health care system with little, if any, alternatives..
    Sharing your thoughts and solutions on mental illness and the problems encountered by those who live among us, and suffer daily with it, has provided the general public with a better understanding, of this debilitating disease. Thank you..


  2. This is very well written brother! I did not know that in Sweden they give mentally ill people $3,000 dollars a month! Here in America, they do give you less and if you get married they cut what they give you in half! Its ridiculous!


  3. I had almost no friends in college when I was mentally ill and just diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. The hatred and discrimination I faced was almost overwhelming! But I refused to give up, and I graduated from Seton Hill University in 2001! It took eight years, but I did it! My Dad wrote me letters every day and helped me very much, we did the core curriculum scheduling together! My Grammy (on my Mom’s side) let me stay with her on vacations and holidays! Zak was an excellent support for me and I called him (collect) every weekend! My Mom always told me that she loved me! My Gramma (on my Dad’s side) laughed and we had good times together, and my sister Tanya prayed for me and told me I was really special! My family stood by me! It is then who were, and still are, my true friends!

    Liked by 1 person

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