A mental health illustration from Pixabay

In Veritatis Amore

Approaching mental illness with love and support

Spring 2022

By Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, Ph.D.

As will be true for many readers, serious mental illness was a taboo topic when I was growing up due to the stigma associated with it in our society. Remember the riveting performances of Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Those performances, accompanied by advances in psychiatric medicine, the approval of antipsychotic drugs, and exposés of overcrowding and recurring abuses of patients in state asylums, among other things, fueled the deinstitutionalization movement. They also greatly influenced attitudes toward and ideas about serious mental illness in my generation. Mum really was the word.  

Nearly three-fourths of college students will experience some sort of mental-health crisis while they are at school.

Today, however, students at Bellarmine and at universities across the country, their views shaped by shows like Atypical, Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds, are challenging and confronting the stigma associated with serious mental illness. Their courage to share opens new avenues for dialogue, increased awareness and creative change.  

Readers of Bellarmine Magazine are likely aware of some of these shifts in perception and attitudes toward serious mental illness, but they may not know that nearly three-fourths of college students will experience some sort of mental-health crisis while they are at school. 
About one-third report bouts of depression that are serious enough to make it difficult to function as effectively as they want to or are expected to. More than 80 percent of students feel overwhelmed by various tasks at hand. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five female students will report sexual assault or be threatened by sexual assault. 
At the same time, it is well documented that many college campuses lack the array of services needed to deal effectively with this mental-health crisis. This is a significant challenge for universities and colleges and our educational system to overcome. 
Perhaps because I am a theologian, my students often disclose in papers or classroom conversations some of the ways they wrestle with mental-health issues. Their witness inspired me to explore the impact of serious mental illness upon families, including my own. 
Between 2018 and 2019, a generous grant from the Louisville Institute enabled me to interview individuals affected by serious mental illness and their sibling caregivers, so that I could better understand where the social fabric of support for these people is worn threadbare or simply nonexistent. Those interviews became the basis for my most recent book, Dutiful Love: Empowering Individuals and Families Affected by Serious Mental Illness (Fortress 2021).  
Serious mental illness affects an entire family system, but this reality is often neglected by theologians, ethicists and religious leaders. My interviews revealed a variety of issues faced by individuals and families, including stereotypes and misperceptions about mental illnesses; significant challenges created by disparities in access to care for mental and physical health; lack of support for family caregivers; feelings of neglect; and secondary stigma.  
Only about 21 percent of siblings take on the responsibility of caring for a brother or sister with serious mental illness. Those who do are more likely to be people of color and women. The fact that all the siblings I interviewed are involved in faith communities made this book project distinct. Their stories suggest not only the problems that we need to confront, but also the promise of God’s activity amid their lives and the way in which their sibling relationships have shaped them as people. They provide powerful reflections of a God who “does triage everyday” when the systems and structures of society fail to support their families.  
This is a critical time for higher education and for faith communities. We have all felt more isolated during the pandemic, and the social conditions in which we are living can make existing anxiety and mental-health issues even more acute. Studies show that people with serious mental illness are among the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in the United States and around the world. There is an urgent need to address the mental-health crisis on college campuses, in churches and in other organizations.  
My interviews of individuals affected by serious mental illness and their sibling caregivers helped me better understand places and practices that provide much needed support and led me to think about much-needed changes in church and campus communities. Most importantly, I recognized through this research that we need a seismic culture shift related to mental illness and the stigma associated with it. That work begins with normalizing conversations about mental illness and helping people who are struggling with these issues to feel known, supported and loved.  

Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty is a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Bellarmine and president of the Faculty Council. Dutiful Love: Empowering Individuals and Families Affected by Serious Mental Illness is available through Fortress Press and on Amazon. 

Image: Gordon Johnson/Pixabay

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