Pope Francis and People with Mental Disorders


The new Pope's message resonates with what is becoming a prevailing ethos of good mental health care--a belief that everyone has promise, can recover and rebuild from life's misfortunes and should be able to have what we all want.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Two weeks after he had been elected Pope, on Holy Thursday, Francis knelt on his knees and washed and kissed the feet of 12 imprisoned juvenile delinquents, two being Muslim and two being women. This was yet another remarkable departure for Time magazine's "Person of the Year" since the papal convention has been a re-enactment of what Jesus did with the apostles but with 12 priests at a ceremony held at St. Peter's or another grand Roman church. When one of the youth asked why, Pope Francis answered: "Things from the heart don't have an explanation."

This also was the man, a Jesuit scholar, who at 76 replied to a query about gay priests with five words that rocked the world: "Who am I to judge?" This was the man who leaped into his papacy by turning away from the Church's long-standing disapproval of being gay by offering, in effect, the Gospel message "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone... " (John 8:7). Pope Francis opened his arms and that of the Catholic Church to people regardless of their faith, gender, sexual preferences or past behaviors. This man, this new Pope, welcomed everyone. He was relentlessly positive and compared the Church to a field hospital during war, which when faced with "a seriously injured person... you have to heal his wounds."

The Pope's message, which I take as a Jew, is non-sectarian. As a psychiatrist, I think his message resonates with what is becoming a prevailing ethos of good mental health care -- a belief that everyone has promise, can recover and rebuild from life's misfortunes and should be able to have what we all want . . .  namely the warmth of relationships, the safety of home, the experience of community and the dignity of being able to contribute to society.

Stigma against people with mental disorders has been around even longer than the Catholic Church. Blame for being ill or behaving oddly has accompanied that stigma. As a young doctor, I was taught to forecast to young people with a serious mental illness (and their families), like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic conditions, that they never could achieve lasting relationships or success in a career. It was a message to those ill that they should resign themselves to a bleak life and a fate that could not be countered. It was, as well, a clinical stance that, ironically, kept good clinicians from providing what may be more important than anything else -- fostering hope and helping to heal the wounds of illness.

Francis' message is clear: as people and institutions, we need to be welcoming (not judging); not defer to the dogma of powerful, hierarchical authorities ("Excessive centralization... complicates," he said); serve those in need (the wounded); and practice what we preach. This is more and more the lesson taking off in my field as well, where a powerful concept of recovery is spreading. Recovery means sustaining hope, inclusion, finding strengths, building resilience and valuing, most of all, the patient's needs and wishes first -- not the convenience of practitioners or organizations, nor the mandates of received teachings or hallowed theories. Recovery does not deny illness. That would not help either. Recovery is about making a life despite limitations, which seems to have far greater application than just to those with mental and addictive disorders.

Few people have the extraordinary privilege, and responsibility, of occupying the world's stage. The new Pope has riveted the attention not just of 1.2 billion Catholics, globally. He is speaking to us all. He has gotten our attention. The leadership he is exercising in his papacy dares not to miss so rare and important an opportunity. The reception he is getting, not just from Catholics, speaks to how much his message is one we have been waiting to hear.

[Editor's note: This article previously appeared on the Huffington Post.]


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