The 2020 Catholic Social Justice Statement is timely. Its topic is mental illness. The coronavirus has made Australians acutely aware of how precarious is the mental health of Australians. The isolation, unemployment, loss of income and restrictions on social contact have been breeding grounds for anxiety and depression, leading to an increased risk of suicide. Governments have emphasised the importance of maintaining mental health, both through exhortation and through increased funding for people at risk.
As a Christian statement, To live life to the full focuses on the world that God wants for us. It begins with the full life God promises, and with the loving relationships that characterise a good society. This is a world in which people are deeply connected with one another and with the world around them in their personal relationships and in the ordering of society. It is a society in which people care for and help one another in hard times.
Mental illness puts great pressures on the relationships that connect us to one another and to our world. It can bring great unseen pain and bewilderment to the many people who suffer from it. In times of crisis, anxiety and depression can develop into serious mental illness that incapacitates people. It threatens the relationships that enrich a full human life, causing hopelessness, lethargy and withdrawal that family members and friends who have not experienced it find difficult to understand. Unlike physical illnesses, it leaves no marks on the body. As people afflicted by it isolate themselves from close relationships, from work and other social contact, their friends and families can also stop making efforts to engage with them.
This is the stigma of mental illness. It leads to a deadly silence. People suffering mental illness often lack the energy and the words to describe what they are suffering. Those close to them often feel excluded. Both can feel blamed, and the silence deepens. As a result the people suffering live a shadow life in diminished relationships, that is anything but life to the full.
The Bishops’ Statement is well informed about the nature and the effects of mental illness. It attends to the part that social disadvantage plays in it, through growing up in a violent environment, being ostracised at school and unable to learn, out of work, unable to access care, living in an environment where drugs and alcohol are abused, and lacking models of peaceable personal relationships. It considers in some detail cases where government actions have created a breeding ground for mental illness: prisoners, Indigenous Australians with their history of dispossession, alienation and punitive paternalistic policies, and people who seek protection. In such conditions it would take a remarkable human being to keep their humanity and sanity.
In asking why people suffering from mental illness seem to matter so little, stigma may have an important role. In the community the mentally ill are often regarded as less than fully human because of the inherited stigma that attaches to them. This unspoken attitude is reflected in chronic government neglect and underfunding of care for people who suffer from mental illness. They are seen as less valuable, perhaps their existence even less noticed, than real Australians who can compete economically.
In the face of this concealment of people with mental illness, To live life to the full makes them central within the community. It appeals to the central place that the crucified Jesus has in Christian communities. Life comes through him, he is the centre of prayer, and he reshapes the community into one that gives priority to people who suffer as he did.
As is true of all people who live with disadvantage, people who suffer from mental illness are rarely noticed except in the few cases when they act irrationally. They invite us to listen to them, to enter their suffering, to ensure that they are cared for, and to honour them.
By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ