The Sticky Stigma of Mental Illness

05/19/2015 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016


In the summer of 1986, I had the opportunity to work as a chaplain in a large trauma hospital. That's where I met Jim. He was about my age at the time, 24 years old. The previous evening, he had attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping medication. After he swallowed the pills, he changed his mind and awakened his brother to take him to the hospital.

Jim explained that he had felt overwhelmed by stress and had begun to drink heavily. He said, "I am embarrassed by what happened. It was stupid. I had been drinking a lot that night. They were my brother's pills. I thought I would just fall asleep."

I replied, "You thought that you would simply fall asleep?"

"Yeah, I really did not think that it would kill me. I just wanted to sleep and relax."

We sat quietly together for a few moments, then, I noted, "Ten pills are a bit more than you need to relax."


"Have you thought about suicide before?"


"Can you talk about that?"

As a tear formed in his eye, he whispered, "No, I don't think that I can."

I wonder if Jim ever found someone to share his torment, to confide in, to walk beside him towards healing. I hope so, but the stigma of mental illness is painfully sticky. Hiding behind a wall of silence, we tend to suffer in isolation. Though deeply yearning to share our struggles, we fear rejection, judgment, and shame.

Yet, the scourge of mental illness is rampant in our society.

In a recent sermon I asked the members of my congregation if our faith community could make room for some popular and well-known individuals. Each of them has struggled with a mood disorder, and their candor and vulnerability have helped to shed light on this very dark challenge.

Do you recognize them in this brief video clip? Click here to view video.

Staggering Statistics

Mental illness strikes close to home, both yours and mine. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, the number of people in our society grappling with these diseases is truly staggering. One in four adults in the United States will experience mental illness in a given year. 20% of youth ages 13-18 will also experience severe mental disorders. 1.1% of American adults live with schizophrenia, 2.6% live with bipolar disorder, 6.7% live with depression, and 18.1% face anxiety disorders. Serious mental illness costs our nation $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

Although military members comprise less than 1% of our population, veterans represent about 20% of suicide each year.

None of us goes unscathed by these battles. Indeed, They are we. We see them in the faces of our friends and neighbors. We see them in the faces of sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers. We see them in the mirror.

A Small But Powerful Way To Help Those With Mental Illness

A former professor of mine, Rose, once worked as counselor in prestigious psychiatric hospital.

Every day, she visited Larry. Larry sat in a rocking chair, and he only ever spoke two words: shower and shave. With each rock of the chair, he rhythmically uttered, "Shower. Shave." When he rocked his chair, Rose rocked beside him. When he stopped, she stopped.

On her last day, she sat next to him and explained that she was leaving the hospital and that she had appreciated getting to know him.

He stopped rocking, looked at her, and said, "Thank you. Thank you for caring about me."

We have much to learn from Rose's ministry. Even as Jesus reached out to those on the margins of society, even as he found those hidden away in the cemeteries of the religious, even as he spoke to those muted by tradition and fear, we too can embrace the full humanity of the mentally ill. We need not worry about what to say or what to do. The gift of presence offers desperately needed recognition, compassion and acceptance.

It might be to late for my grandfather, but it's not too late for you.