Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hope and Mental Illness

I was assigned to read a lecture entitled "Recovery and the Conspiracy of Hope" by Dr. Patricia Deegan concerning the existence of hope in relation to mental illness. For many reasons, I found this to be incredibly beautiful and meaningful to read. Deegan gave this particular lecture at the Mental Health Services Conference of Australia and New Zealand back in 1996. When she uses the word "we", she is referencing those who work in the area of mental health:

"Both individually and collectively we have refused to succumb to the images of despair that so often are associated with mental illness. We are a conspiracy of hope and we are pressing back against the strong tide of oppression which for centuries has been the legacy of those who are labeled with mental illness. We are refusing to reduce human beings to illnesses. We recognize that within each one of us there is a person and that, as people, we share a common humanity with those who have been diagnosed with mental illness. We are here to witness that people who have been diagnosed with mental illness are not things, are not objects to be acted upon, are not animals or subhuman life forms. We share in the certainty that people labeled with mental illness are first and above all, human beings."

This makes me wonder what kind of rich theology can emerge from a christocentric interpretation of mental illness. I want to resist language that affirms something of inherent worth inside the individual. Rather, I'd like to move toward understanding all humanity, regardless of their endless differences including mental illness, as valuable only due to their reality as being chosen and elected in Jesus Christ. I can't imagine how this would inform the message of hope that is spoken and embodied when interacting with those who endure mental illness.

Moreover, I think there are a lot of eschatological questions that need to be asked when we reference language of hope in relation to mental illness. Is there a "true humanity" that must be found underneath this mental illness? What does trying to find that "true humanity" underneath the illness mean for how we view and treat those with mental illnesses just as they are? Eschatologically speaking, do we see them as less than human until the future resurrection when they will no longer suffer from such illness? Is their illness an intimate part of their humanity? Do we want to support an eschatology that leaves no room for mental illness to exist in the future resurrection? If we don't want the future resurrection to include mental illness, is it possible to prevent treating those with mental illness as subhuman in this present reality?

There is one thing I would like to note: so often in academic theological discourse, we talk endlessly about the marginalized and the oppressed. And I fully support this focus more than I can express here. But I rarely, if ever, hear speech about those who suffer from mental illness. They are truly some of the most forgotten and abused members of society. To hope for these particular human beings and somehow pursue solidarity with those who suffer from mental illness is scandalously neglected. This might be due to the fact that results are so hard to tangibly measure most times. Progress is unbearably slow. Sometimes so much so that hope seems futile. Moreover, what does progress mean for specific types of mental illness like schizophrenia? Yet the places where progress seems impossible to measure are the exact places where hope must be born. These are the places for which theological speech should be directed. The psychiatric hospital is one of the main spaces for which we should be ordering our speech and actions after the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These are the places where the light of the resurrection must shine into the darkness. These are precisely the places where Jesus Christ meets us.

8 comments:

Irenicum said...

Thank you so much Kait for this beautiful piece. As someone who has worked in the field before myself, both in NYC and in Michigan, and as someone who has family that has suffered from mental illness, and as someone who has myself struggled deeply with depression, this speaks directly to my heart. God bless you.

thedescribe said...

A few years back I thought about what it might mean to write a 'mad theology' (allowing a few connotations there). I remember when it sunk that those dealing with psychosis cannot trust their senses. This seems like such a drastically different reality until I began to think about how knowledge is mediated. There is a sort of extremity to psychosis that demands that we face the relational nature of perception.
There is a humbling posture in someone who has to consistently de-brief with people around to explore 'what actually happened.'
- David CLD

Daniel said...

Thanks for this great post and important questions Kait. Coincidentally there is a discussion over at the blog An und für sich http://itself.wordpress.com/ titled “Psychopathology and Abuse,” that I think you may find relevant and also that you may have some important insights to add. Anyone who works or has worked with homeless teens and street-people (as my wife and I have for many years) is forced to confront the kind of questions your post is asking. Both theologically and psychotherapeutic/psychodynamically the issue of mental illness is a profound challenge for everyone involved and I don’t think we are anywhere close to really understanding and healing mental illness. I usually felt lost and overwhelmed when I was dealing with severely psychotic street people, yet I know that God’s presence is to be found there and these suffering folks are my brothers and sisters in the Kingdom. I hope you will write more about this in the future Kait, and who knows you may be being led to this subject for your dissertation and/or even a book! Blessings in your vocation, obliged.

p.s. David D. above and over at AUFS also has some very good insights as well. And I think David might also bring to bear some Levinasian vocabulary to this issue. Also, I have not read much in the way of Lacan’s approach to Schizophrenia and Psychosis. Other than DeWaelhens and Vanheule, do either of you have one good selection you could recommend? Though I am really more interested in pastoral/theological perspectives, Lacan in well measured and controlled doses can sometimes be beneficial (though if you have ever heard Zizek lecture I would cut his dose down by half and make sure he didn’t partake on an empty stomach--or mix with other durgs!). p.s.s. to David, I posted a bit of a Levinasian reply to DanO @ JWTIE and would be interested in your impression, and remind me of our earlier discussion and what the heck I was supposed to get back to you on, vis a vis E.L.? Obliged.

thedescribe said...

Yikes this is a pretty convoluted conversation we are having here Daniel!
- David

Kait Dugan said...

Really, Mr. Driedger? Because I thought Daniel was pretty clear.

Daniel said...

describe is right Kait, in that me and David seem to be conversing through a bunch a different blogs, FB comments, emails and tweets, all the while reveling in Levina's admonitions of the sanctity and divine presence of the 'human face!' blessings to you both, until we have faces, obliged.

thedescribe said...

Yes if you've seen the online trails we've blazed! I suspect I have left a little bad faith around here though . . . so no worries.
- David

Michael Thompson said...

Hi Kait, I'm a new fan (and already a big one). I have personally had people in my life with schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder, so these questions are important for me. I appreciate the effort to lay some groundwork. Thank you!

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