Statistics suggest that one in four people have been diagnosed with mental illness, yet it’s still something that most of us don’t like to talk about.

“Mental health is an unsanctioned illness,” explained Julie Yonker, a Calvin psychology professor. “It’s the ‘no-casserole disease.’ If people have cancer or a broken leg, you bring food; no one brings food for a mental illness.”

Some people, including Yonker, would like to see this changed. “It’s a matter of justice,” she said.

It’s the main reason she and 11 other Calvin faculty and alumni gathered throughout the past year as part of the Christian Perspectives on Mental Illness working group.

Becoming better equipped

The initial goal of the group was to address this question: How can we as Christians become better equipped to be agents of renewal when mental illness affects us, our families, our friends, our communities and our churches?

For nine months, the group—consisting of mental health professionals, counselors, professors and clergy, and supported by the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and the Calvin Alumni Association—read and discussed several books and articles and listened to mental health advocates.

One significant visit to the group was by Active Minds, the Calvin chapter of a national organization dedicated to reducing the stigmas that surround mental illness. The students deeply affected the study group by sharing their struggles with their families, church, roommates and friends concerning mental illness.

“This is where we discovered there was a real niche to fill,” said Yonker. “There’s not a lot of helpful resources out there for the emerging adult—the 18-year-old to 29 something. There’s not a WebMD out there for mental illnesses, particularly for issues facing emerging adults. These issues—like telling your parents and grandparents and even your first employer that you suffer from depression or anxiety, for example—are scenarios emerging adults have to navigate for the first time.”

It’s also around this age that stigmas begin to appear. “Children don’t stigmatize each other,” said Brett VanTol ’84, one of the alumni group members. “Attributes tend to get cemented in early adult life. If we can address this at the emerging adult stage, we can make an impact, a lasting impact.”

VanTol, a psychologist for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Haven, Mich., joined the group because he believes “stigmatism robs us of an opportunity to be more caring and loving. It robs us of knowing God’s heart,” he said. “I was excited about getting together to hear other people’s perspectives, but all around a common theme, Calvin’s theme of being agents of renewal.”

The stubbornness of stigma

It’s a conundrum with consequences. After countless efforts to address the stigma surrounding mental illness, after articles in publications like this one, after church education, school classes, public education efforts, why does the stigma surrounding a set of diseases—the diseases of mental health—still persist? Why does this stigma still hurt? And why aren’t Christians in the forefront of efforts to dismantle this stigma?

Themes covered:

People who live with mental illnesses are still judged more harshly than people who live with other kinds of illnesses. People can be blamed for their own symptoms, isolated due to stigma and treated as if they have nothing to offer to the Christian community besides lessons in tolerance. The combination of blame, stereotyping and marginalization makes suffering worse, just when the person needs support and guidance.

The causes of mental illness are complex. Genetic factors, environmental conditions, brain factors, family and social history—all can be involved. The complex interweaving of causes is true for many illnesses today—think of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Research into causation is vital, especially if it can provide prevention and healing. But causation is not important to the person with the illness or the community—the distress is real no matter how it happened, and blame is never appropriate. Blame for “mental” but not “physical” disease is based on bad theology that fails to understand human beings as complex embodied persons.

Help for mental illness involves good care and understanding communities. Too often individuals avoid seeking help for depression or other illnesses because of fear—but early intervention can be life saving. Friends and families should not hesitate to ask, to avoid judgment and to give guidance and support. A recent movement called “Mental Health First Aid” is spreading around the country to give communities the tools they need to address issues of concern. The church can be a first-line source of support and enfolding, sometimes over many, many years. Communities of grace can help all members find meaning in suffering and see the gifts that each person can bring to the group.

Bottom line:

Our harmful ideas about mental illness should be a matter dear to the hearts of those who care about people and justice, because stigma wounds our communities and its members. It hurts those who have mental illness, their families and friends, and it wounds the communities that fail to confront the stigmas that they hold. It prevents people from getting the help they need, and from making the contributions that they can make.

Is it too much to dream that every Calvin graduate will work against the stigma of mental illness, will follow the lead of these young people, and will know how and when to seek and give help when it is needed?

By Claudia Beversluis ’74, Calvin psychology professor and working group member

Having a voice

For one member of the group who has a mental illness, it was crucial to have her voice heard, which is why she joined. “I thought it was important to have someone in the group with lived experience,” she said. “I have learned that people telling their stories breaks down the walls of stigma: Once you can put a face with it, it’s not just a label or diagnosis.”

As one outcome of the study project, the group hopes to share personal stories through videos as a resource for the emerging adult population.

“One of the things we learned is that there is a need to know how to come alongside and be a faithful presence to a friend or family member who has a mental illness,” said Yonker. “We hope that by creating some short videos, we can offer some help in that area.”

Audrey Waldron ’07, an alum with a counseling degree, hopes to use some of what she learned in her role as Calvin’s transfer coordinator in the admissions department.

“I work with families who are struggling with mental illness in their families,” she said. “I think Calvin does a fabulous job of taking care of the needs of students, but there is such a wide variety of needs for students coming in. I’m interested in finding out how we can care for people really well.

“Personally, I learned a lot from this group,” she said. “There was an incredible amount of collected expertise in the room. It’s a lifelong learning process, and I was happy to be a part of a group that is looking to contribute to the support of that emerging adult niche.”

Providing resources

Other potential outcomes from the project include a website with helpful questions and answers and links to reputable resources, a panel discussion at Calvin later this year and various writings.

Cindy Holtrop, a chaplain who serves on the Mental Health Task Force of Disability Concern for the Christian Reformed Church, is eager to see the results extend well beyond the group.

“The value of the group is we came away having discussed what we can do in our churches and what churches need to empower us to be even more proactive in the communities we return to.” Quoting Jean Vanier, a Canadian philosopher and humanitarian, she said, “The church is not called to extraordinary things; the church is called to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”