Part II of Personal problems as just another consumer commodity
Thomas Szasz famously wrote: “If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.”
If a belief in God is evidence of a mental illness, then the church is mentally ill.
I listened to the audio version of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (FAPC) Pentecost sermon entitled Prophets Wanted: Apply Within. The minister was saying that prophets often make the church feel uncomfortable. It became very clear to me just how uncomfortable mentally ill people make the church feel, if the FAPC sermon is any example. There was not one mention, not one, of the mentally ill*, in the list of people the minister was inviting to be prophets. The minster said that prophets were, inter alia, gays* and lesbians, women, people of different nationalities and races. These groups of people may have a welcome, different perspective, but prophets are in a category of their own.
I am hugely ashamed of my church for failing to acknowledge where the real prophets are located. The church continues to play it safe by making sure that its prophets don’t get anywhere near the church to challenge its cherished notion that prophecy was something Biblical, not modern. There they are, these prophets, babbling to themselves in tongues outside the church while inside the church we are treated to sermons about Pentecost. If there was ever an example of mental illness in action, the celebration of Pentecost would fit the bill. “The first scientific study into glossolalia, that is, speaking in tongues, took place in 1927 when psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, while studying schizophrenic patients, linked glossolalia to schizophrenia and hysteria. He observed that glossolalists tended to have more of a need for authority figures and appeared to have more crises in their lives.”
If there is a link between glossolalists, schizophrenia and the founding of new religions, then William J. Seymour (Pentacostalism), L. Ron Hubbard (Church of Scientology), and George Fox (Quakers), are only a few outstanding examples.
So, there is no huge expectation on my part that the church will actually take me up on my challenge to advocate for the mentally ill. I suspect part of the reason is the close association between religion and mental illness, that the church knows about, but finds too uncomfortable to deal with. Real prophets upset the status quo. I am going to go out on a limb and say something as opinion that I have noticed all my life: There are lots of borderline mentally ill people in church. They try to disguise it, as best they can, but the closer you get to the altar, the more fervent and unusual are the people attracted to that sacred ground. It can be manifested as a love of symbols, rituals and reading the Bible. Put another way, these people’s chakras are open at the higher levels. So, perhaps it is no wonder that mental illness frightens the church because it risks exposing the fervent. It is like a politician going out of his way to vilify homosexuality, only to be exposed later as a practicing homosexual.
As a mother of a son who got labelled “schizophrenic,” I sure could have used the help of the church early on to see so-called mental illness in a positive light. The church is a potential ally, given what it is built upon. I’m not talking about the rock that the early Christian church is supposedly built upon, I’m talking about the church’s intimate affiliation with prophecy/mental illness/spirituality. Everywhere I turned when I was most in need, psychiatry and public ignorance ramped up my fear. I began to catch on relatively early that the church was merely echoing psychiatry because it is convenient for it to do so. Psychiatry practices social control. (I’m beginning to sound more like Thomas Szasz every day.) The church should ask itself if it is helping psychiatry practice social control when it advocates for supportive housing instead of supporting the individual in his quest to get answers to spiritual questions.
Shouldn’t the expectation of society be that “mentally ill ” people become well again and resume their rightful place in the community? Statistics for the mentally ill population show a different picture, that their numbers are increasing and their illnesses are becoming chronic.
I ‘m of the opinion that the tragedy that is playing out daily on the streets and in the current housing solutions, is connected to psychiatry’s insistence up until now that favors medication over understanding. Harvard professor Marcia Angell raises doubts about these drugs: “And what about the drugs that are now the mainstay of treatment? Do they work? If they do, shouldn’t we expect the prevalence of mental illness to be declining, not rising ?”
In addition to doctors and hospitals, there is a vast network of social service housing projects that oversee management of the mentally ill. The mentally ill who reside outside of the influence of doctors, hospitals and projects, meaning, on the streets, either cannot or will not take their medication. As it happens, recent research is on their side. The medications are increasingly being challenged as ineffective, and their grotesque side effects are evident. But, who actually listens to the “mentally ill?” Apparently not the church.
We, as a society uplift freedom of choice, except for the mentally ill. We say “the customer is always right,” except when it comes to the mentally ill. We are supposed to value a person’s opinion, except when it comes to the mentally ill. We instead put down the mentally ill by saying that they have agnosognosia, the inability to recognize that they have a mental illness.
Mental illness is understandable if you view it as a response to psychic pain or trauma. The problem is, psychiatry has abandoned getting to know its supposed customers in favour of the much more lucrative diseased brain model of mental illness. You hear the mantra everywhere: Medications will help the mentally ill. Except, by and large they don’t. The side effects overwhelm any supposed benefits the drugs are supposed to deliver and lead to a life span that is twenty-five years shorter on average**. The false claim that medication is the best way to treat mental illness has been exposed on many fronts, most recently in Robert Whitaker’s book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. Psychiatrists has been so focused on pretending they are real doctors (able to prescribe) that they hardly even pay lip service to psychotherapeutic interventions.
If the church really wants to help the mentally ill, a positive perception about what mental illness is may go a longer way to helping the mentally ill than cleaning up the streets and putting people in housing where medication is mandatory. I am asking the church to re-examine whether institutional solutions are helping or hindering recovery of the individuals who are sleeping on the church steps.
There is an old Chinese saying, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” which means that what you get may be exactly what you didn’t want to happen and/or have unintended consequences. Churches profess to help the mentally ill in ways that can more cynically be interpreted as wanting the mentally ill off the streets as a social service to everybody else. They have convinced themselves they are doing God’s work, but are they? In the case of the mentally ill, it may never even occur to the church that the mission they were really put here to do is to listen to and uplift their own, which today would include the so-called mentally ill. Ask any minister, priest or rabbi how many mentally people they come across on a yearly basis who are lurking around the church entrance or creating disturbances in or around the building. They’re there because they are on a spiritual quest. When my son Chris was wandering around the streets of our city, looking dishevelled, fully medicated, living with his family and attending a psychiatric program, he often was seen hanging around a different church than the one we go to. Street prophets like Chris have not been welcomed at church since organized religion began to stamp out pagan beliefs and issue edicts about how the Bible is supposed to be interpreted.
Churches should rethink where their real expertise lies. Rather than align itself with mainstream psychiatry today, which it is doing by supporting the institutions over the individual, the church could be a leader as an advocate for the dignity of each individual.
The Village Voice has a sad story about two individuals who live together in a privately run adult care home for the mentally ill in Coney Island, New York. Churches, if you are reading this, ask yourselves, are you helping the people or are you helping to clean up the streets for the rest of us so we don’t have to pick our way over vagrants on our way to church? Put yourself in their shoes. If they are there because they refuse to take medication, then they have a point that needs to be listened to. If they are there because the family has abandoned them, then help families to appreciate and support their family members. Does it ever occur to someone to ask the customer what he or she would like? I doubt their solution would be a warehouse for the mentally ill in Coney Island. A great way to help would be to become the people’s advocate, to advocate along with the therapy and skills that they need to lead independent lives.
Here’s what the church can do to advocate for the mentally ill. I’m not asking it to do anything other than begin to change its perception of what mental illness is:
Read the words of the prophets and then ask why those guys were different than these guys today.
Ask how come Jesus cured the demon possessed, and yet psychiatry claims there is still no cure for schizophrenia or bipolar, only management.
Ask yourselves who you are serving.
Respect what the supposedly mentally ill person is telling you.
Learn more about mental illness by reading books written by people who disagree with the status quo. Do not take the view of mainstream psychiatry at face value. They are not your constituents.
Challenge the cosy relationship between pharmaceutical companies, doctors and research institutions through letter writing campaigns and other means.
*From Wikipedia: Following controversy and protests from gay activists at APA annual conferences from 1970 to 1973, as well as the emergence of new data from researchers such as Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker, the seventh printing of the DSM-II, in 1974, no longer listed homosexuality as a category of disorder. But through the efforts of psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, who had led the DSM-II development committee, a vote by the APA trustees in 1973, and confirmed by the wider APA membership in 1974, the diagnosis was replaced with the category of “sexual orientation disturbance”.