Mental Illness and the Courage to be Real

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One of the greatest pains in life is the isolation caused by personal or family struggles that we feel can’t be shared. It is just too shameful, too jarring perhaps from the personal narrative we have carefully constructed and maintained. Then something happens, and the whole edifice begins to collapse, sometimes slowly but often rapidly in a flood of personal or family destruction.

Such is the pain of mental illness for many. It has many forms and degrees of course, striking people in many different ways at varied seasons of life. Recently I wrote a post about Dorothy Carey, wife of Baptist missionary William Carey, who in the last 12 years of her life in West Bengal, India progressively became more and more mentally ill. (See my post at Thankful for the people around the “Heroes”). Dorothy died, untreated and unhealed, in 1807 at 51 years of age, after living in India for almost 14 years. (Her gravestone photo accompanies this post.)

In the years before Mrs. Carey died, another British missionary Dr. John Thomas, had also struggled with degrees of mental insanity and also died in India. The questions were many. What was the cause of this mental illness? What can be told to the sending churches in England? How can these two and others struggling be treated? This was over 200 years ago, but even today answers to questions like these are fleeting. Of course, great advances have been made in understanding mental illness as well in treatment. But still a great stigma is there, a great shame in being honest about struggles. Often things are hidden way too long, when perhaps earlier detection and treatment may have helped.

Some of the people reading this are or have been aid workers, missionaries or pastors, or their families. Many have struggled with issues in their personal lives and relationships that have been hidden, partly because it was too hard to write home about them. I can relate to not knowing how to write our financial supporters over struggles on the field. But when we take that approach, it is so often deeply isolating. It takes a deep courage to be real about our struggles, our weaknesses, our failures. In that way, things have not changed much in 200 years. William Carey and his associates did not know how to tell others about what his wife and colleague were going through. We still do not know today.

As the author of the book Dorothy Carey, James R. Beck, writes “The mental health of missionaries are often a source of embarrassment for us. As much as we proclaim that missionaries are just human, that they have all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the rest of us, that we should not put them up on a pedestal, we still seem embarrassed when they struggle. Perhaps we pay lip service to the need to treat them as ordinary persons, but harbor some deep-seated wish that they really could be perfect. Why does the public often demand so much invulnerability and perfection from the missionary task force? Our shame is projected also onto missionaries.”

Wise words. But they could also be written about so many other professions, and about all those that struggle with mental illness. Yet it gets worse. Even when missionaries or others begin to communicate their needs, and are then coming home for treatment, as Beck writes, it can become even harder. “Missionaries in our day who return home because of psychological problems often report feeling very much like lepers. Churches and societies often manifest an uncertainty about those who have had psychological problems abroad and a sense of frustration regarding how to help them. All too often the dilemma results in doing nothing or very little to help the returned missionaries. So the embattled missionary who struggles with mental illness soon experiences rejection, a lack of care, or a message of abandonment.”

We must do better. As I write this, the news here in Asia this week has been about a mega music star in South Korea, 27 year old Jonghyun Kim, killing himself. Kim was the lead vocalist of the K-Pop boy band SHINee, and had fans all over the world. As one journalist writes, “the star had left a number of cryptic messages prior to his death that hinted at his long-term struggle with depression, loneliness and fear of lacking talent. Kim joins a list of many celebrities (and residents) in South Korea, who ended their life after being driven to the edge by stress, peer pressure, harassment and low self-esteem.”

As the journalist (Farhana Chowdhury) writes, “Nobody likes to talk about it (depression) but it’s there. People tend to turn a blind eye because they themselves are afraid of being shunned. Visiting a therapist is almost considered taboo.”  This happens not only in South Korea, but all over the world. Some would say that the holiday seasons, like right now in this Christmas week, can be even harder for those struggling with forms of mental illness.

We all struggle in many different ways. Please fight isolation in any way you can. There are no easy answers, either for Dorothy Carey, or Jonghyun Kim, or for any of us. But we need to seek community, friendship, faith beyond ourselves and our own resources. Bring the struggle into the light, and get the help you and your family desperately need.

This was not the happiest Christmas post. But I’ll the reader judge how needed it is.

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