A few years ago, a photo of a wolf pack went viral. The caption claimed that the first three were old and sick, the stronger ones were in the middle and the alpha was in the back. People loved the idea that the pack slowed down to the pace of the older ones, and that the stronger ones looked out for the weaker ones. Sadly it was not accurate. But we all wanted it to be. We applaud the idea because we know we are all, on some level, broken.
We also know that slowing down is costly.
It’s natural to recoil from something that looks scary or difficult. We can’t bear all the burdens. If mental health becomes dangerous, it is appropriate to put up boundaries. But if our response is based on prejudice or gossip or a determination to ignore or isolate, it becomes mental health stigma.
Mental health stigma isn’t always mockery or insults. It is insidious rejection and it can even be done under the guise of caring for someone. Its poison is speech: gossip, slander, prejudice, persistent advice. It pushes down. It doesn’t listen. It isolates.
It can sneak in at work, with friends, at church, or at the doctor’s surgery. It starts in passive ways: we aren’t invited because they think we wouldn’t want to come; they don’t visit when they were invited, because they think we wouldn’t cope; or we aren’t considered for new opportunities at work. We aren’t always taken seriously. It progresses to being offered conflicting advice. If advice isn’t taken, we can be accused of being manipulative. We are blamed for what we’re battling. People speak about it among themselves, “out of concern”, forming opinions without taking the time to listen. Among Christians it can take the form of demanding a sort of supernatural perfection that is devoid of sadness. Our devotion is questioned. It’s our fault again. Not so long ago we could have been threatened with being fired from our jobs if we sought medical help.
So in the end, when we most need support, we might find the door shut, and a wall built around us. The isolation, poverty and distorted opinions that are forced on us make us even more vulnerable.
When it happens, it can be mystifying. I had been honest with people because I thought I was safe with them or because I was obligated to in a work contract. When it became clear that gossip and prejudice had entered the fold, for a long time later it was hard to know who to trust. It made the burden ten times heavier.
The feeble bind on strength
Hannah’s story is recorded in the Old Testament. It occurred when the Israelites were at a very low point, before Israel had been established as a kingdom.
Hannah was barren. She was married to a man who also had another wife, Peninnah. And Peninnah did have children. Every year they would go together to a place called Shiloh, where the tent of meeting was, to worship the Lord.
It should have been a happy time – seeing old friends and feasting – but in the very place where Hannah should have found the most joy, Peninnah took advantage of her vulnerability. Year after year, Peninnah would provoke Hannah because she didn’t have children. On top of that, her husband didn’t think she should be upset – because she had him and apparently that was better than ten sons. He loved her, and gave her more food, and according to him, that should be enough. So Hannah did what any believer would do in that situation: she poured her heart out to God. The religious leader watching did not encourage her. Instead he jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk.
Hannah is provoked by her husband’s other wife, silenced by her husband, and when she is most desperate and honest with God, her religious leader assumes the worst. She is isolated and it’s not her fault. But this is the key: the unburdening of her heart to someone who listens with true compassion is enough to sustain her before anything she has asked for has been granted. “….Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.”
In a final blow to her stigma, God gave Hannah a son.
Hannah’s song tells us what she knew about God: that all the fortunes of the world are at his steady command, he rules over the power-bearers of the time, and he sets his special favour on those who are downtrodden and look to him.“Not by might shall a man prevail”.
So it can be with us.
In the warped isolation of stigma, we can lay before him what we need, whether it’s a loyal friend who listens, or a job, or protection. I waited and prayed. Battles were lost and I got up again. And prayers were answered. I got a job when all the odds were stacked against me. I was successful when people didn’t expect me to be. I also got a loyal friend. He does answer. And even before they are answered, when the voices around us, however well-meaning, seem to devour us, there is one who rules over all things, and he sees us. We need people, but when everyone has gone, he is the one who stays. He is the alpha wolf who slows to our pace, keeping watch. It’s a care that is borne of compassion, because he knows what stigma feels like.
Next post: Hope Against Hope (3): What does Jesus know about stigma?
Reference: 1 Samuel 1, 2