Battling mental health stigma
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By Jim Coggins

THE NEW Canadian Mental Health Commission is “a wonderful opportunity” for Christians to be involved in dealing with one of the most pressing issues in our society, according to one of its members.

Chris Summerville is one of 11 non-government members of the new commission’s board. Besides struggling with mental health issues, he is interim CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada; he is also an ordained pastor. He hopes to bring a holistic approach which addresses body, mind, soul and spirit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the formation of the commission August 31. One of its key tasks is to launch a  campaign to combat the stigma associated with mental illness. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do what William Wilberforce did in regard to slavery – to combat the social injustices associated with living with a mental illness,” said Summerville.

These injustices include everything from discrimination in employment to people who don’t want a group home in their neighbourhood, he said.

Removing the stigma is also key, said Summerville, because people are reluctant to seek help for mental problems until they become very severe – sometimes due to pressure from family members who “don’t want to let the family secret out.”

This is unfortunate, he said, because when problems are addressed early, “the outcomes are much better.”

Marja Bergen, who facilitates the Living Room, a group for people with mood disorders in Burnaby, agreed that “reducing the stigma is the most wonderful thing” about the new Commission because this will lead to more research and better care.

Because people don’t want to talk about mental health issues, nobody is establishing runs to raise money for the issue, she said.

The second task of the Commission is to establish a national information exchange, available to anyone who needs it.

Summerville said the goal is to establish a set of “best practices” so that people are not “working from prejudice.”

This is important, said Bergen, because churches, for instance, often avoid addressing mental health issues because they just don’t understand them.

The Commission’s third task is to devise a coordinated mental health strategy for Canada. Canada is the only G-8 country without such a strategy.

Summerville said the goal is to “address disparities” so people can get “the same quality of care and services across Canada.” For instance, it takes six months to see a psychiatrist in Winnipeg, and a year in Toronto.

In some cases, said Summerville, people have to go “hundreds of miles away from home to find a crisis stabilization centre.”

“This shouldn’t be in one of the wealthiest countries in the world,” he said.

Implementing such a strategy will require much more than the $15 million a year budgeted so far. Bergen said that amount is “pretty puny when you consider the amount of need there is out there.”

She said she recently received a desperate call for help from a man who had gone to a hospital seeking help but was turned away because there were 20 patients ahead of him.

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“There are just not enough doctors, not enough counselling services,” she said.

Summerville said one of his goals is to “bring the presence of Christ” into the different perspectives that will be present in the Commission.There has been a “prejudice against religion” on the part of some mental health professionals, he said, and “historically clinicians have been reluctant to discuss religion with their clients.”

However, that is changing,  partly because clients themselves are saying that finding purpose and meaning are an important part of their healing process.

“Young people especially want to be defined more than just chemically,” said Summerville. As a result, the Spring 2007 issue of the Journal of Psycho-Social Rehabilitation and the Fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Mental Health Ethics are both devoted to examining the connections between mental health and spirituality.

“The recovery of wellness is as much a spiritual journey as a psychological or biological one,” said Summerville.

Satan will use any opportunity to attack, including mental illness, said Summerville, but mental illness and spiritual should not be equated. “I know some wonderful Christians who have schizophrenia, and I know people in deep spiritual bondage who have no mental illness.”

Mental illness has many aspects, he said, from chemical imbalances and genetic dispositions to traumatic experiences that may trigger problems.

Both Summerville and Bergen said churches often don’t do a good job of dealing with mental illness because they tend to “treat it as a spiritual problem exclusively.”

The Christian church was at the forefront of mental health reform in the 19th century but has since lost that role, said Summerville. He added that there are two attitudes in the church which need to be corrected. First, some Christians have trouble understanding “messy people” and recognizing that we live in “a broken world.” Such Christians think those who are mentally ill should experience complete and immediate healing, and become impatient when they don’t.

Other Christians believe that ‘signs and miracles’ have ceased, and that those who are ill just have to endure it.

Summerville said these people need to be reminded that Christ can bring more healing than they can ever imagine.

The church sometimes stigmatizes the mentally ill more than society in general does, said Bergen. She said she would like to see the church “at the forefront” of the struggle for mental health rather than “straggling behind.”

Bergen said her own bipolar problem is purely a chemical imbalance problem that is treated by medication. However, the nonjudgmental support she has received from her community, Brentwood Park Alliance Church, has enabled her to “feel God’s love at work in my life and helped me cope with my illness. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my church’s support.”

The Living Room currently offers this kind of holistic support to 40 people, being connected to the Brentwood Church and to the Mood Disorder Association. Bergen has written a manual to guide other churches in setting up similar groups. She can be contacted at MarjaBergen.blogspot.com

October 2007