Dealing with Mental Illness as a Person of Faith

The end of 2012 was marred with the tragic events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. While the community reeled with the shocking loss and the rest of the country attempted to deal with this heartbreak, discussions ignited on Capitol Hill, on topics from media violence to gun control. Hitting me closer to home has been the discussion sparked on the treatment and reception of mental illness in the United States.

Shortly after the tragedy, a mother, Liza Long, posted her experience as the mother of a mentally ill child and her feelings of solidarity with the family of the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, claiming, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother.” Almost immediately, there was a backlash against such a stark comparison, with bloggers claiming that this issue is not as straightforward as it seems to be and may contribute to a further stigmatization of those mentally ill.

First of all, I am not Adam Lanza’s mother. In fact, as I am no one’s mother, I cannot even imagine the perspective of a parent dealing with a child with mental illness. However, I am the sister of someone suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). While I could never believe her capable of committing such a tragedy, as I am sure no one can truly predict of their loved one, violent outbursts are one aspect of the illness that I contend with on a regular basis. BPD has, in the past, been a highly stigmatized disorder, one whose treatment remains largely uncovered by health insurance because of the level of difficulty in treating it. Those who suffer from BPD are unable to regulate their intense emotions and often exhibit impulsive behavior, all the while attempting to regulate their surroundings to alleviate drastic emotional situations. Their lives are literally ruled by their emotions. (For an excellent resource in how to cope with a loved one in such a situation, see Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger)

Whether one can truly find common ground with the tragedy that happened in Connecticut, the question that was raised still remains as Long and one-time critic, Sarah Krendzior have jointly recognized: how we as a country should approach the treatment of mental illness? For me, it goes beyond even this question. The true question is how, as a person of faith, should I approach the relationship with my sister who suffers from a mental illness?

In the last several decades, some Christian theologians have looked to the traditional doctrine of the Trinitarian God as a model for the Christian life. That is, a Christian should strive for perfect relationship with God, other people, and the whole of creation that is modeled from the eternal and full relationship within God. The true goal of humanity and all of creation, the true salvation, is complete reconciliation of the relations that were broken at the beginning.

The story of Genesis is not only a story of creation, but of the origins of dissonance, a dissonance that continues to this day. Catholic theology holds to a doctrine of Original Sin, in which every human is born with the stain of the sin that Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden by disobeying God’s order and eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, cast in relational terms, one sees the consequences of this sin as the ongoing break of the relation between man and woman, humanity and the earth, and most fundamentally, humanity and God as is evidenced in their punishment. (Genesis 3: 14-24)

As a Christian, the coming of Jesus Christ brought about a decisive about face. His actions brought humanity into reconciliation with God and his teachings show us how to relate to others. He teaches us the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)

This directive lies at the heart of all interaction, and it is imperative to recognize this even in the most trying times, such as dealing with a person mentally ill. Maintaining a relationship with someone suffering from BPD is demanding. Their intense emotions and unpredictable behavior leave you feeling whip lashed and spent. Across the board, people close to BPDs recount feelings of manipulation and degradation. The commandment from Jesus tells us to treat each other as people, but it seems as though we do not get that respect from our loved ones suffering from BPD. Placating their behavior and allowing them to treat us so is not the answer. Left emotionally spent, it is certainly not the path to loving oneself, the sole precondition to loving others. However, ignoring the other person in the relationship, the one suffering from BPD, ignores the very heart of the issue and denies who that person is by denying what their struggles.

Despite the difficulties, we are called to deal with the individual suffering from mental illness as just that, an individual. However, it also demands that we respect ourselves as individuals and this means boundaries. While this is a tight line to walk, it excludes attempts at broad stigmatization while asking the surrounding community to face the problem.

Christians are not alone in the conviction of fixing the world through building relationships. Other religious traditions include similar concepts and nearly all include something similar to the greatest commandment or Golden Rule. We, as people of faith, can join together to face issues of mental illness.

Image by US Nessie via Wikimedia Commons

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One thought on “Dealing with Mental Illness as a Person of Faith

  1. Rebecca,

    Thank you for speaking so eloquently and honestly about your sister with bpd and the call to love someone who is hard to love. I believe my brother has undiagnosed bpd. As a Christian, learning to love him (often in spite of him) is a painful challenge. Trusting that God, in His sovereignty, gave me this brother and will give me the strength to walk through the valley of mental illness takes daily, hourly turning to Him to reaffirm my trust that He is good even when circumstances are very hard. I think the more we can speak candidly about the diseases of the mind, the more we can shed the shame and the stigma. Also, the more we reach out to each other, the stronger we can stand against the fear and shame that isolation ushers in. So, I bless you for helping loosen a bit of that fear and shame in my own soul.

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