Sunday, June 26, 2011

See My Humanity, Not Just My Illness

I was talking with a few ministers about social media, such as Facebook, at General Assembly (GA) 2011 yesterday. One minister said they did not want a church Facebook page where people can post to it because "there are a lot of people in our area with bipolar and I don't want them posting things that will cause problems."

This is not the first time I have heard a comment like this in professional and social settings. In fact, I hear such comments about people with bipolar disorder at least once every few months. They show the enormous stigma against mental illness, particularly bipolar.

I spent all week at GA listening to the stories of our last 50 years since the Unitarians and Universalists joined together so that this faith could be a source of justice in this world. How we were heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement; we protested this week to show support for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community; and we have inclusivity ministries. We stand on the side of love and want no one to be discriminated against based on belief, age, race, ability, social class, or sexual orientation. And yet when I mention that this stigma against people with mental illness is unkind and not in line with our faith, many people think I am crazy (and in their minds, technically, I am).

I have sat through chaplaincy trainings focused on how the brain of a bipolar person is unstable and therefor they can not be trusted to be telling the truth or be able to make decisions. I have had people tell me not to let anyone know of my illness because it will affect my career.

I know there are many injustices in our world, and I am just speaking about this one today. What I have found in my experience though is that this injustice is one we do not talk about. Many people do not want to advocate for people with mental illness because they think it will reflect badly on them. No one wants to be associated with "craziness."

Because of this stigma, people with mental illness often don't ask for help, their families are secluded and hurting, their children have no one to talk to, and their illness often progresses.

I never know what to say when people make these judgmental comments about those with mental illness. How do I respectfully tell them how hurtful and degrading it is to know they assume people like me are irresponsible, a risk to society, and not able to contribute to this world just because we have an illness? How do I tell a fellow colleague that Unitarian Universalism is a healing faith for people with mental illness and judgements like this decrease the ministry they can do?

What I wish is that people actually sat down and listened to the stories of people with mental illness instead of just focusing on the symptoms. True, this is a devastating illness that hurts not only the person with bipolar, but also people around them. However, I am able to have a meaningful life because my husband and my home Unitarian Universalist church happened to be people who saw my humanity and said they would help me. They held me accountable and showed they believed in me. They never let me give up on myself and they keep an eye on how I am doing to help me tweak my treatment as necessary.

I feel mental illness is a physical and spiritual illness. The stigma from society, and the internal doubt and questioning this illness brings to a person means they need not only medical support, but spiritual as well in order to manage their illness.

No matter what faith we are, religious or not, we can help end this stigma and allow people with mental illness to be productive members of society when we actually see them as human beings.


Rev. Katie


  1. I joke that over the past 30 years that I've spent a lot more time talking to folks with mental illness than folks without - and it's true that I have. I guess that's why when I read some of those quotes you provided, that my jaw just dropped to the floor.
    Illnesses of all types run on a continuum - you can have a mild cold or a more serious cold, you don't have to stay in bed or go to a hospital for most colds. The same is true for mental illnesses, most folks with bi-polar (and I base this on my 30 years of personal professional experience and readings of the literature) don't have the symptoms for a movie of the week. Some folks with Bi-polar can certainly be over-optimistic at times (note the "at times"), but can't be trusted? So I've goofed by trusting folks who indeed were trustworthy? Bah, indeed.
    As to what to say to these folks, I'm not 100% sure. Maybe ask what their source was?
    Inpatient, outpatient, best selling novels. one journal article, friends of friends?

    I wonder if they knew any who weren't

  2. Thank you for your comment Steven. It seems to me that people have the wrong impression of bipolar because we only hear stories about people in the worst parts of their illness. Because of the stigma, most of us with the illness don't talk about it, so we don't help fight that negative view.

    So many people we look up to in the world, and the UU community, had/have bipolar, like our beloved Emerson. I think it would help people if they read Kay Redfield Jamison's book, Touched With Fire. Interestingly the title of Emerson's biography is The Mind on Fire.

    You are right, there are different severities of the illness and most people can have a productive life where we contribute good things to the world.

    Thank you for your work.

    Rev. Katie

  3. Thank you for affirming the comments I made on another blog. But thank you even more for linking to your own writing. You speak to exactly what I found so hurtful over the past 24 hours.