For those who love somebody struggling with mental illness, our primary job is to be fully present and listen without prejudice.
I had my one and only panic attack more than a decade ago. While I was at lunch with a friend, I realized something wasn’t right. The noises around me were muffled. I couldn’t focus on the conversation. I was safely home when this internal hurricane made landfall. And when it hit, all I could do was lie on the floor and wait it out—my mind and heart rate going faster than I could process. When it was over, I was depleted.
It’s unimaginable to me how people cope with chronic anxiety, but that single experience gave me a window into mental health struggles that I’ve never forgotten. And while I haven’t experienced a panic attack or any other mental health episode since, those who do suffer—considering our country’s political unrest and the ongoing stresses over COVID-19—face a daily uphill climb that warrants our care and respect.
Listen without Prejudice
Meghan Markle brought the issue of mental health to the forefront last March when she spoke with Oprah Winfrey about her struggles as an active member of the British royal family. Suicidal thoughts took root during her first pregnancy and never let up, leading her to step away from royal duties. And while Markle may have the financial resources and opportunities many of us do not, she deserves credit for shedding a light on a very dark subject. Depression, after all, recognizes neither rank nor wealth.
The Duchess of Sussex is just one brick in a large wall. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five adults in the United States lives with some form of mental illness—51.5 million in 2019. But in that same report, the NIMH found that 23 million, less than half, sought any form of treatment.
There’s a reason for the disparity. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) found those suffering from mental illness often avoid treatment because of public, personal, or institutional stigma.
For them, the cruel (and inaccurate) term crazy looms overhead. This frustrates mental health professionals: If allergies inhibited our breathing, we would treat them. If we broke a bone, we would cast it. But our mental health is often shortchanged. Experts warn that avoidance will only compound symptoms, leading to worsening self-esteem and a decline in personal relationships.
The APA recognizes that stigmas surrounding mental illness are also cultural. “Discrimination against people with mental illness can lead to harm,” their August 2020 report states. “People with mental illness are marginalized and discriminated against in various ways, but understanding what that looks like and how to address and eradicate it can help.”
For those who love somebody struggling with mental illness, our first job—possibly our only job—is to be fully present and listen without prejudice. Since May is Mental Health Awareness month, now is a good time to put it into practice.
Broken and Worthy of Repair
Daniel Imwalle, my friend and colleague who wrote the cover story for St. Anthony Messenger's May issue on mental health, was brave enough to acknowledge that he wages a daily war with anxiety. But he advocated for his own wellness and took the necessary steps to address it. Dan understands what hasn’t yet crystallized for millions in this country: We are wildly imperfect creatures, yet fully made in God’s image. And God desires us to be well, to love ourselves enough to be well.
St. Francis of Assisi knew this. As a veteran and prisoner of war who likely suffered from PTSD, Francis understood that he was broken and worthy of repair.
He was a medieval man to his core, yet his problems were not dissimilar to what we face today: a public health crisis, instability, emotional desolation, and deep anguish. But once he stripped himself of all things worldly, Francis understood that no wound was beyond God’s ability to heal.
In a letter Francis wrote to Brother Leo, an early friar, his salutation should be on the lips of everyone who loves those suffering in mind or spirit: “May God smile on you and be merciful to you. May God turn his regard toward you and give you peace.”