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Living with mental illness

30 November, 1999

Mental illness, like Alzheimer’s disease, depression and schizophrenia, is a challenge to the person who suffers it and to those close to and/or caring for them. Jeanette Brimner gives good advice on understanding mental illness.

People who suffer with a mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or a mood disorder, such as clinical depression, can find the going extremely difficult without God’s gentle light leading the way. Like­wise for people who live with those afflicted with a mental problem of whatever kind: they need great faith, patience and grace from God.


I know some extraordinary people from each of these categ­ories who truly believe in the words expressed by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin: ‘Jesus did not promise to take away our burdens; he promised to help us carry them’.



Alzheimer’s disease began to overtake Mary’s brain while her husband, Len, was still president of a large College. As her disease progressed, Len resigned his position in order to care for her. When asked if he had found it a heavy burden, he replied cheer­fully, ‘No, I considered it a privil­ege to care for her. I wanted to look after her with the same love and dedication she showed me when she was well’. It was obvious that he loved her very much.


When Mary could no longer recognise him or communicate with him, Len grieved deeply. It helped him to think of the great love God has for us, even when we don’t, or can’t, return that love. Rather than complaining to God about having to care for his wife for so many years, he accept­ed his lot, and made the most of it. He even learned to become an accomplished cook and a skilled gardener. Often he conversed with God as a trusted friend, drawing strength from his grace.


Dark cloud

Normally cheerful and outgoing, Muriel was in her late forties when she began to suffer an over­whelming sense of sadness, tinged with dread. Her interest in ordinary life quickly began to ebb.


Even the things that had once given her great pleasure – such as community activities and going to the theatre – lost their appeal. After several weeks, her husband, Ned, encouraged Muriel to seek medical help. She did, and after much trial and error the right medication was found to correct the chemical imbalance that had made her clinically depressed.


‘Once the medication began working, I felt like my old self again,’ she remarked. ‘Being depressed was like being engulfed by a dark cloud and never seeing the sun. There were many times I cried out to God to help me, and he did with the assistance of modern medication and the con­stant love of my family and friends.’


Above all, Muriel believes it was Ned and her adoring children who helped her cope with the hellish experience she went through. They encouraged her to seek help, and never ceased giving her their love and support. Their strong faith helped her to fortify herself, and she learned to trust that God would help her through the darkness.


Even now, if she has an occa­sional bad day or two, she turns to God in simple trust, as well as using the skills that help her cope which she learned in the hospital. Every day Muriel is thankful, and fully appreciates the simple pleasures she missed when she was ill.



Neil and Sara knew there was something seriously wrong with their son, James, when he was in his late teens. At first they were anxious and confused by some of the symptoms he was having: hal­lucinations, disrupted thoughts and behaviour, and periods of social withdrawal.


When they had their son diagnosed, they learned that he had a disorder called schizophre­nia, which appears to be a failure of the brain’s electrical or chemi­cal systems to function properly. This results in numerous neural twists, leading to disturbing and sometimes frightening behaviour.


After speaking to the doctor, Neil and Sarah realised how ill their son was, but they resolved to treat him with the same under­standing, love and acceptance which they give to all their chil­dren. They set about learning everything they could about the disorder and how to cope with the symptoms. This included understanding how the medicat­ion he was on to keep him stable worked.

James sometimes refuses to take his medicine, and this caus­es him to experience terrible moments of confusion and para­noia, among other symptoms. At times like this, Sarah and Neil learned to turn to God for strength, and they believe that without their faith and the securi­ty it brings them they would not have been able to continue.


Relational difficulties

When someone is injured in a car accident or a work-related mishap, it is easy to feel sympathy for the victim, because we can see the outward signs of the pain. It is harder to relate to a person with mental illness.


For instance, some people are good at covering up their feelings in front of others. They may be going through the inner turmoil of a clinical depression, but may appear fine on the outside. Famil­ies living with a patient who is mentally ill, or who suffers from a mood disorder, must often try to cope alone since, despite all the openness about mental illness these days, a deep-seated stigma still attaches itself to those who suffer in this way.


As Mother Teresa states in her book, In My Own Words: ‘There is someone who suffers in every family and in every situation. Love begins by taking care of the closest ones, the ones at home’. We should pray for these hidden saints who deal with mental ill­ness in themselves or in their loved ones, and show them that they are important witnesses to God’s love in our world. As such, they can be an inspiration to us all.

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