Dear Jamaican Christian friends,
Can we have a conversation about mental illness?
If you believe that heart disease, hypertension, asthma and cancer are illnesses and not ‘just demonic attacks,’ then please stop telling people with chronic depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses that all they are facing is ‘just a demonic attack,’ and that all they need to do is pray. Please, do not dissuade persons with mental health challenges from seeking medical attention and/or counselling.
Why do I say this? Well, yesterday morning I saw a post from someone I am connected with on facebook. She said she was “feeling depressed” one day, prayed and never felt that way again. Actually, the post started with telling anyone suffering from a mental illness that they do not need a doctor or counsellor, instead they need to pray because all they are facing is a demonic attack. This part was my main concern. Someone else, who was connected to her, shared bravely, publicly and extensively of her experience with clinical depression and advising the person who made the original post that what she experienced was a ‘real illness’ needing treatment. The conversation went back and forth between them, and with several other persons commenting with “Amen” and seeming to agree it is just a demon you should pray away; no counselling or medical help needed.
I wrote a pretty long comment on the post, which I wish I had copied so I could have shared it here. However, all the comments which challenged the original poster’s opinions were deleted. It then weighed heavily on me to write this post because the very act of deleting all the comments played right into one of the points I made.
Mental health and mental illnesses are not talked about enough, if at all, in many churches. It is like a hidden disability, so stigmatised that nobody wants to touch it. It is taboo because many persons who attend church think that all mental illnesses are demonic possession or oppression, so in order to be delivered from it all you have to do is fast and pray. This shuts down open conversation about an important issue; one that may be affecting people in all congregations across the island. The absence of the conversation allows the stigma to persist and keeps many persons uninformed about opportunities to get help.
A Gleaner article noted that 108,000 Jamaicans, which is approximately 4% of the population, were treated by mental health professionals for illnesses in 2015. The most prevalent cases in Jamaica are schizophrenia and depression. In 2015, the same article notes that 83,438 Jamaicans were treated for schizophrenia/psychosis. There were 2,521 cases of child/adolescent disorders and 1,888 persons were admitted to hospitals for mental disorders. Globally, another article states, the trends show 25.6% of females and 14.8% males suffer from depression. Speaking to the Jamaica Star, psychologist Dr Pearnell Bell said, “The statistics show that one in four persons will experience a mental illness at some time in their lives, so if you’re in a room of 20 people, five of those persons will, at some point, experience a mental illness.” Imagine that. If I am to extend the argument then, if you are sitting in your church, a quarter of the total number of persons there with you may have already experienced mental illness, or will in the future. In the article, Dr Bell further states that “Depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders are also prevalent mental illnesses, which also come with suicidal thoughts.” Minister of Health, Dr Christopher Tufton is on record saying, “What is very clear is that a closer examination of the facts and statistics is needed with a view to crafting an approach to recognise and treat the situation. This is extremely necessary, based on just the diagnosis and implications over the last year alone.” One of those steps to treat with the situation is to reduce stigma around mental health, and the churches need to play their part in this.
Dignity in Mental Health – that was the theme for World Mental Health Day in 2015. I think the theme is most relevant for this conversation and important for the church to consider. If every mental illness, and there is a whole raft of them, is ascribed to demonic oppression/possession, do you think persons suffering will be quick to seek help? Will they feel comfortable speaking to anyone in the church for support? “Deemanz deh pon him” is not an exclamation that is usually followed by “Let me go and lend him some support.” No. What can happen next is deliberate attempts to distance everyone from the afflicted, and in some extreme cases a beating with the Bible. It can mean a complete stripping of dignity from the person. It is quite possible that the social isolation will make the mental illness worse.
Through conversation on these matters, churches can educate, inform and create a supportive environment. There are many experts who recommend practising a religion, for the maintenance of good mental health. No, it is not just about the faith, but also about the fellowship or community. Especially for young people in the church who are challenged by mental illness, some empathy, understanding and support would be good. Many churches in Jamaica offer counselling. However, as much as you respect a medical doctor to address other illnesses, please also respect clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors to aid those with mental illnesses. And please, don’t say those with mental illnesses should only speak to “spirit-filled counsellors,” because when you are sick, you don’t only go to “spirit-filled doctors.” Oh, yes, that comment was actually sent to me.
Are mental illnesses demonic? I make no judgements on that; so I neither agree nor disagree. What I do know is that research has advanced to enable us to better understand many illnesses. I know that when persons in the church are sick with the flu, hypertension, diabetes or cancer, nobody tells them it is merely a demonic attack and they should not go to see a doctor. Of course, I know that any illness is “an attack from the devil” in almost any church. So, why is there no taboo around seeking medical attention for some ‘attacks’, but there is a strong taboo around mental illness? Nobody tells the sister with breast cancer or the brother with diabetes to do nothing else but pray about it. On the contrary, the church bands together to pray for their health, they pray for the doctors who are treating, and they visit payents in hospital or at home to really lend support. Let us really think about it. Someone has even suggested that those who reject the notion that the only thing needed to remedy mental illnesses is prayer and putting the demons under subjection, do so because they are shifting with the world to a place that says God cannot handle all things. That is a fallacy. We are understanding illnesses better, including mental illnesses, and are exploring the different avenues to treat them with, dare I say, God-given knowledge.
A former classmate of mine, Deeka, is a Psychiatric and Chemical Dependency nurse in New York. She is also a devout Christian who made a valuable intervention in a facebook discussion on this matter. Deeka said, “I believe as Christians it is our duty to read and ‘study to show thyself approved’…not just the Bible but study what is going in the world. We need to better understand mental illnesses.” I could not agree with her more. There is much information out there to help churches better understand mental health and support those who are ill. If you are apart of a church family, I am asking you to start a conversation in your church, if it is not already being had. Play your part in ending the stigma attached to mental illness. You can use the downloadable mental health brochures from the Ministry of Health, which can be found at this link. To learn about the mental health services available in Jamaica, please visit here.
I commend the churches and Christians who have helped those who suffer from mental illness to not feel ashamed to talk about it and seek help. I commend those pastors, elders and other religious ministers who recognise the fact that despite their strong faith, some Christians will experience mental illness. It is excellent that there are churches in Jamaica who provide counselling services and referrals to medical and mental health professionals for more severe cases. After all, the church is to meet the needs of whole persons; mind, body and spirit.
Let’s truly have a conversation. Let’s listen, share, learn and care.
Other useful links:
5 Tips To Take Care of Your Brain – DiG Jamaica
Mental Help Matters; Getting Help – Jamaica Observer
Mental Health and Youth in Jamaica – The Caribbean Current