Stigma Takes Another Life

On July 20, 2017 Chester Bennington committed suicide. Chester was the lead singer for the rap/metal band Linkin Park. And as I’ve read a few articles as people respond to his passing, I’m finding there’s one thing that’s bothering me, and it’s not related to his passing. No, it’s related to some people’s response to his death. Unfortunately it’s something I’ve noticed before when mental illness takes a celebrity, and every time I’m saddened, frustrated, but most importantly I feel let down. Almost betrayed.

I guess you could call me “spiritual but not religious”. I’d probably fall into the “Christian” camp but I resist that label for several reasons that really aren’t relevant here. I only mention it because I listen to a lot of rock and metal bands that have or still carry the label of “Christian Rock” — and follow some of them on Twitter. I can see their responses, and in situations like this I want to see how they respond to a subject that hits close to home for me.

The part that has me frustrated, betrayed, and even angry to a degree is how little those who have such a wide reach seem to sidestep the core issue (in this case it’s depression, mental health, and suicide). They touch base on it with a few lines tied to “if you’re feeling depression, go get help” and then jump on to how amazing Jesus is and how a relationship with him is so fulfilling. The implication is that whatever place you’re at in your faith or relationship with Jesus it’s not quite enough and that Jesus will take away the dark scary thoughts.

I will say that this is certainly possible. Sometimes mental health issues can be related to the spiritual world, and I have no issues saying that. And even beyond that, yes — sometimes miracles of healing can take place just like with any other illness. Broken bones have been healed. Cancer has disappeared. Overwhelming depression has vanished. And these things have happened in the church I (sporadically) attend.

What bothers me is that so often in Christian circles, mental illness is still heavily stigmatized. It’s shown as a lack of faith. Or weakness. “Just say Jesus” or “Jesus Saves” or “You just need spiritual healing”. The implication I hear behind those words is “You’re not doing it right. You’re not singing the right words, or reading the right translation, or memorizing verses, or attending church/cell group enough, you don’t have enough faith. Whatever you’re doing it’s not enough to get you healed from this imaginary thing in your head.”

I’ve seen this attitude expressed towards all sorts of illnesses (including cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and more. At one church I attended for a few brief weeks this attitude of “not enough faith” was even expressed towards someone who had broken their leg and it was healing slower than expected. How much more this attitude comes across to those with “invisible illnesses” such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and of course mental illnesses.

The cynical side of me sees that as a popular Christian artist, it’s a fine line to walk if you have to make a “public statement” about mental illness or suicide. If you don’t talk about Jesus and Faith and “He’s all you need”, you risk offending the hardcore believers who won’t tolerate anything other than “Jesus” being the be-all and end-all, without a question forever and ever, Amen….because those folks have never really ventured outside their Christian bubble and faced anything that might shake their faith. And if you offend those, there goes a chunk of your music and/or book sales. Because you’re not “Preaching” enough or whatever. And if you DO push the “Jesus Saves” line, you risk (and in my view often do) minimizing the issue at hand and dehumanize those who are struggling to make sense of it all…people like myself, for example.

A Christian by definition is someone who follows the teaching of Jesus Christ. Even if you don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but merely a good teacher, there is nothing I’ve seen in his example that shows him treating the ill (physically or mentally) or the demonically oppressed (spiritually controlled or manipulated) with contempt or frustration. He didn’t hold them at arms length or tell them they were “doing religion wrong”, or tell them they didn’t have enough faith and leave it at that.

The Jesus I see engaged people. The word “leprosy” in the Bible seems to cover many types of skin diseases. Many were or were thought to be contagious, and many caused the individual to become disfigured, either directly due to tissue degeneration, or indirectly where people would hurt themselves and not feel it due to a failing nervous system. People afflicted with leprosy were ostracised. No one touched them, in fact they were forced to live outside the cities in their own “camp” separately. THe general public avoided physical contact, and even keeping a physical distance between themselves and the ill. There’s a story in the Bible that Jesus healed a man afflicted with leprosy. He did that many times, I’m sure but one event that is recorded is that he healed a man by touching him. If Jesus really was the Son of God I’m sure he could have just healed that man without even being near him. Instead he gave the man something he hadn’t experienced for a long time, maybe even years…..the gift of physical contact with another person. Even more, that touch, that contact was intentional and purposeful. The touch wasn’t needed to heal that man of his physical illness….but the touch I’m sure did wonders for the mans mental and emotional healing after being an outcast for so long.

Another story is recorded of a man who’s son was ill. It is recorded that his son was afflicted by an evil spirit. The spirit seemed intent on physically tormenting his son, causing him to fall into fires and have seizures. Jesus told the man that his son could be healed if the man would believe that it was possible. Here’s the thing that I find so often is glossed over. The man is recorded as saying (in effect) “I want to believe. I want to believe it’s possible. I want to have hope. But it’s just not there! Jesus, give me hope

And as I’m writing this, I guess hope is what so many of us who struggle with mental health issues find so lacking in the world. In its place, there’s shame, guilt, judgement. And worse, the religion that proclaims to have Hope for eternity far to often falls so short in showing that Hope and grace that Jesus modeled.

And it’s hard not to lump the whole religion together and toss it aside. It’s hard to separate the religion from the faith. To see that there are many who go because it’s the religious thing to do, but that there are others (sadly far fewer in number) who strive to live it daily despite knowing they’re not going to live up to the example of Jesus. It’s hard not to become bitter towards those who are judgemental and just paint all “Christians” with the same brush. Because there are times where I’ve experienced less guilting and shaming outside of the Christian circles than I have inside, and that applies to struggling in my faith, trying to reconcile a fallen world with fallen believers, and a risen Christ.

As a guy who isn’t sure how this whole “relationship with Jesus” is supposed to look or feel, and isn’t entirely sure if my mental health issues are emotional, physical, spiritual, or a combination of any of them in some sort of unbalanced ratio… I find often the response to suicide and mental health incredibly lacking. Chester Benningfield is just the latest example where a public figure has succumbed to their mental illness.

Some mock him for being a wimp, and not being “manly enough” to handle life. Some point to the evils of “drugs, sex, and Rock n Roll” (in my opinion the drugs/sex/addictions are just an attempt to deal with the stress and craziness of being a celebrity, and dealing with that on top of handling a mental illness is just an extra layer of hardship to try to handle). Some are shocked that someone who’s music was popular not because it glamorized the life of a “rock star” but because it waded into the darkness could succumb to that darkness after all.

Chester had a wife. 6 kids. He was a dad. He was a husband . He has friends who will be missing him, who are trying to make sense of this even more than the rest of us are. Too often people look at a celebrity who gives in to something they don’t understand and mock, or ridicule, or wonder why he didn’t reach out for help when his music helped thousands of people face their own darkness and find solace and strength to face their own pain. Somehow they think the fame will somehow shield them from hardship and yet we’re shocked when harsh reality destroys the “picture perfect” image the media paints of the celebrity life.

And what’s sad…. I just realized I’m doing what I’m decrying everyone else for doing. I’m using a celebrity death to make my own point. Everyone hurts. Everyone has pain. Due to the way mental illness affects us, sometimes death seems like the only way to cope. Not that death is what is actually what we seek. It’s just that death seems the only way to stop our pain, or the pain we believe we’re inflicting on others.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. Everyone says “just talk it out” or “go for counselling” or “seek help”.If you’re struggling, you know you should but sometimes it’s just so hard, for so many different reasons. I will say this, however. I may not understand your particular situation, but I’ll listen and try to understand. I know it feels like you’re the only one. That no one could understand your situation. I’ve felt that too. And I know how hard it can be to make that jump when everything within you is telling you not to tell someone just how dark and scary things really are. If you want to talk to someone, just find me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/andrewpenner78 or check out the SickNotWeak community (www.sicknotweak.com, and they’re on Facebook and Twitter as well, #sicknotweak).

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