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Resisting the stigma of mental illness

Dr. Michelle Connor Harris serves as the Clinical Director for St. Raphael Counseling.

Imagine that you live in ancient Rome and you are feeling sad and hopeless.  The Colosseum holds no appeal, you have no desire to see your friends, and you just want to sleep.  Your physician diagnoses you with melancholia, known today as depression, which is a good start.  This diagnosis of melancholia is a more advanced understanding than the centuries-old belief that all mental illness is the result of evil spirits.

What Roman remedies are available? Your doctor might prescribe a program of vigorous exercise and playing games with your family, which sounds reasonable – maybe even pleasant – depending on your family.  This ancient physician may also prescribe shaving your head and rubbing it with herb-infused oils, which is less pleasant – especially if you’re a woman.  Following this guidance, everyone now knows you’ve got an “issue” because you’re walking around bald and smelling of juniper berries!  If these remedies fail, the alternatives are much less pleasant: expect to be chained up, starved and flogged.  Yikes!

Physicians continued to advocate restraining and starving patients into the modern age, despite many advances in the understanding of mental illness in the ancient world.  Unfortunately, this progress was significantly set back when Western Europe was devastated by famine and plague in the 14th and 15th centuries.  Significant religious and political upheavals resulted in a loss of intellectual capital that had been cultivated for hundreds of years.   Many authorities reverted to the belief that mental illness was caused by demonic possession.  People were “exorcised” with the winning combination of prayer and torture, sometimes resulting in death.

Many of these ideas, and the accompanying stigma, lingered and migrated with European settlers to the New World – and we have been playing catch-up ever since.

Now imagine that you feel those symptoms of melancholia today.  Would you talk to a doctor?  Would you tell your family or friends?  If you feel hesitant to talk to anyone about your experience, it is partly due to history and partly due to human nature.  We can thank our ancestors for creating fear that we might be prescribed extreme remedies like being tied up starved and beaten.  We can thank our human nature for the desire to fit in and the very visceral rejection of any sense of difference or abnormality.

People have a deep need to be accepted by those around them, beginning with our family.  If we are rejected by those who feed, house, and clothe us, we might not survive.  Humans are wired to please those around us to ensure our survival.  As parents, we want our children to fit in and be liked by teachers and peers, because we know how important it is to their survival out in the world.  The U.S. is a very competitive society that demands complex relationships and behaviors to remain successful. The thought that our children might struggle to be successful in that society can be very frightening to parents, especially when we fee ill-equipped to help them.

Fear is a powerful motivator.  In the case of getting help for mental illness, the fear of social stigma can leave us paralyzed and unwilling to act.

We can change that.  Mental illness is a fact of life and we are professionals who are here to help.  Those ancient remedies are long gone.  Let’s be thankful that we live in a time and place where mental health professionals no longer employ torture, but rather use empirically-based methods that always begin with talking.

At St. Raphael Counseling, we work at the intersection of the psychological and spiritual – with an in-depth knowledge and understanding of what it means to be Christian in an increasingly secular world.  We can help you find hope and healing.  Call us at 720-377-1359.

We also invite you to please join us for a special conference for parents and teens ages 13 and older on Sept. 26 at St. Thomas More parish.  We will share information about diagnosing mental illness, helpful tips for managing stress for students, and guidance for parents of teens.  We will also remember those who have died by suicide.  Go to our website at straphaelcounseling.com and hit the events tab at the top to register.  We look forward to seeing you there!

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