When I first saw the article entitled Jesus Christ 'May Have Suffered From Mental Health Problems,' Claims Church of England online I was skeptical and a little annoyed. Maybe even a little bit offended. I was worried that this could be another group of people stigmatizing mental illness or something written to sensationalize mental illness. However, the article talks about a mental health campaign created in England to help end the stigma against mental illness.
The article highlights the Church of England's support through the Archbishops’ Council for the Time to Change program which is "the biggest attempt yet in England to end the discrimination that surrounds mental health." The Rev. Eva McIntyre and other Church of England leaders created a packet for congregations about how to raise awareness about mental illness and it includes the text of a sermon she wrote addressing the issue. In Rev. McIntyre's sermon she says: "Even Jesus was not immune to accusations about his mental health: there is a story in the gospel that tells of his mother and siblings attempting to take him home because they are afraid that he has lost his mind."
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Rev. McIntyre's argument is: Should we see Jesus as any different even if he did have a mental illness? Does that make him any less of a great spiritual leader? No.
The article goes on to talk about how different religions have all stigmtized mental illness. Many Christian faiths say people with mental illness are posessed by the devil. Famous atheist Richard Dawkins said belief in a religion was a form of mental illness. Dr. Kamran Ahmed, of the Muslim Council of Britain, says stigma is a particular issue for Muslims "due to 'cultural and traditional beliefs', which can include people mistakenly believing they are possessed by the 'Evil Eye' when in fact they are mentally ill."
I am just really glad to see faith traditions of all kinds speaking up about mental illness in order to held end these negative messages. In my experience, many religions have harmed people with mental illness far more than we have helped them. This happened to me in my Catholic upbringing, but also in my current faith where I was asked by leaders of our faith if I was sure I wanted to become a minister or could it just be "religious ideation due to your bipolar disorder?" Fortunately, going against this stigma in our faith, is the Unitarian Universalist Mental Health Ministry with Rev. Barbara Myers. They have created The Caring Congregation Program which is a curriculum designed to help churches be more supportive and welcoming to people with mental illness and their families.
I would encourage everyone, no matter what faith you are, to ask your congregation to at least have a discussion about how your religious institution handles the issue of mental illness. You may think it is not an issue in your church, but with one in four people suffering from mental illness at some point in their lives, you have a large group of people in your church that are dealing with mental illness. Even if you think your church does not have a stance on mental illness, that is not true. Our congregations send messages out about mental illness all the time, from the kids in Sunday school who comment that the child running all over the room is "crazy" to the adult who calls another adult "schizo" in a joking manner. Messages are being sent all the time, whether we like it or not. Often the negative messages are unintentional but profoundly hurtful. We all need to be intentional about discovering what message our congregation is sending and if it is not one we think is appropriate, work to change it.
Go forth and start a conversation and help end the stigma. Spread the message that people with mental illness are loved just as they are and let them know they are welcome in your place of worship.