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Franciscan Spirit Blog

Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness

May 10, 2021
Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness
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.” 

Keep reading!

A Tale of Chronic Anxiety

Finding God in Depression

A Saint Who Conquered Darkness

The Mental Health Crisis: A Catholic Response

Subscribe to St. Anthony Messenger!


Submitted by Al Manzella (not verified) on Mon, 05/10/2021 - 09:40 AM


One of our children suffered for years with bi polar condition. He was a wonderful, kind, loving and faithfilled young man. He was also, at times, difficult to.understand and help. His, and our faith, helped greatly, as did all the wonderful Mental Health professionals. We were always concerned that he took his "medications." May all those with Mentla Health illnesses receive the love and support of family, friends and Mental Health professionals.

Submitted by Ceit McRae (not verified) on Mon, 05/10/2021 - 12:45 PM


I suffer from chronic anxiety and have been treated with prescribed medication for 20 years. Suddenly my medical team decided they were going to cut my medication by 25% without discussion and without a tapering protocol. A taper is necessary to avoid death but they left me to figure this out on my own. Fortunately I have a solid science background and developed my own protocol using a VA protocol for a guideline. Last night was my 2nd step in tapering, down 33% from original dose in one month. I’ve also developed another protocol to support my body during this process. It’s working. I feel God is with me, guiding my steps. The medical profession in my case are oath breakers. “First do no harm” has no meaning to them and what they are doing to me is highly unethical. The grace of God covers that, too.

Submitted by Sandra Greco (not verified) on Thu, 05/13/2021 - 03:22 PM

In reply to by Ceit McRae (not verified)


I wholeheartely agree with you......oath breakers. I also want to add that this country in particular is so behind and lacking in much needed and proper mental health care. Some families reject what they can't understand because of lack of knowledge and it is scary and inconvenient. Thus, many homeless! I have dealt with a couple of family members who were diagnosed as bipolar. Very frustrating and you practically have to wait for something bad to happen to even get them help. "Are they a danger to themselves or anyone else?? That is the question asked everytime you report them. Then, once they finally pay attention almost putting you in an anxiety attack yourself, all they do is drug the patient with God only knows what. Once they are quieted down, they get released with a script that they will NEVER take. It is so frustrating! God help us!

Submitted by David Weiss (not verified) on Mon, 05/10/2021 - 03:28 PM


I would not get help for my depression because of the self-stigma. Very destructive.

Submitted by Ben (not verified) on Mon, 05/10/2021 - 03:45 PM


I find a lot of peace in st. Francis. He helps in my own struggles with mental illness.

Submitted by James (not verified) on Thu, 05/13/2021 - 08:55 AM


From a family of sufferers I have come to realize that the life situation has to change along with any therapy that a doctor can offer. Staying comfortable in healing is not an option.

Submitted by Tony (not verified) on Thu, 05/13/2021 - 09:31 AM


As a person struggling with bipolar disorder, I am frustrated at times by some media outlet’s reporting on incidents involving the mentally ill. At times, they write off criminal activity as being due to mental illness, without any context or elaboration. This contributes to further mistrust by the public, towards people with mental illnesses.

Submitted by Karen (not verified) on Thu, 05/13/2021 - 10:30 AM


After many years of being labeled as bipolar and going through many medications and treatments, my niece realized what they had called her self-medicating with alcohol and drugs was really the issue. She went through AA and then weaned herself off the many medications she had been taking and she is doing well - just some anxiety. Unfortunately she had to go through many years of suffering and living in a stupor from the meds, and now she's afraid to go for anti-anxiety meds because she doesn't want to live that way again - and all because we want to sweep this under the rug. It breaks my heart.

Submitted by Rose (not verified) on Sat, 05/15/2021 - 05:19 PM


My nephew has struggled with mental illness for almost his entire 27 years. I pray daily that he find the strength to live with it. We must always comfort those who are sick. That is our duty.

Submitted by Laura (not verified) on Sun, 05/16/2021 - 11:16 PM


Thank you for this. But I wish mental health was discussed more often and not just this time of year. It is a year round problem.

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on Sun, 05/23/2021 - 11:34 AM


My daughter suffers from bipolar. It will be a struggle for the rest of her life. I pray she finds the peace and acceptance she deserves. Praying for all those affected. 🙏

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