People who have mental illness are like people who had leprosy in the 1800’s. Others avoid them, gossip about them, shun them, or simply stay away. This is true even if an episodic flare up has gone back into remission. Brain conditions like skin conditions flare up and then go into remission.
I thought about this comparison because yesterday was the feast a St. Damien of Molokai. For those of you who don’t know, St. Damien went to minister at a leper colony in the 1800’s. He eventually developed that illness and died with the people he served. What made St. Damien a Saint was not that he caught the illness and died. It was that he disregarded thousands of years of conventional beliefs about these people– that they were demon tainted, sinners, filthy, or simply people to be feared and avoided. To St. Damien these were simply people who had an illness and needed support. He was right. In the end, science identified the disease and successfully treated it.
Presently science is making great strides in identifying and treating various mental illnesses, though admittedly we are still in the Bronze Age. However, take a look at brain scans and you will see that the term mental illness is actually obsolete. These are, as I termed above, brain conditions. That is not to say medical intervention is the only treatment. Like bodily ailments originating in the skin, glands, pancreas, or heart people who have a brain condition must develop a well-rounded program of self-care. They also need community support.
In today’s gospel Jesus says we are to be one with each other just as He and the Father are one. So let’s not separate our selves from one fourth of the population who have periodic flare ups of various brain conditions and drive them from our parishes by our cold shoulders, avoidance, and gossip. Invite them to a bible study, prayer group, or parish trip like you would anyone else and then do everything you can to make them feel welcomed in that setting. Then, sit next to them at mass. You will heal their hearts and souls this way just like St. Damien did. You will also be obeying Jesus’s command to be one with each other. None of us are perfect in body or mind or soul.
Picture by William Brigham, 1889. Public domain in the United States.