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By Linda O’Neil,

Mental health advocate and member of the Ottawa Baha’i Community

  The recent creation of the Canadian Mental Health Commission, an increasing number of well-researched articles and broadcasts on mental illness, celebrities speaking out about mental illness, ordinary people and their family members “coming out of the closet” to share personal experiences, more effective medical treatments, and the new focus on the concept of “recovery” – all are helping to raise the profile and reduce the stigma of mental illness. Almost everyone knows someone who has suffered from depression, anxiety, a mood disorder, schizophrenia or other mental illness, who has gone on sick leave, or has sought some form of treatment, including counselling, medication, or other therapies.

What is stigma?  When people are seen in a negative or stereotyped manner they are said to be stigmatized. Stigma is a reality for people with a mental illness, who report that how others judge them is one of their greatest barriers to a complete and satisfying life. Society still feels uncomfortable about mental illness. It is not seen like other illnesses such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes. Inaccuracies and misunderstandings have led many people to believe those who have mental illness have a weak character or may be dangerous. Although some symptoms are mental illness may be apparent at some stages in some disorders, mental illness has also been called an invisible illness. Often, the only way to know whether someone has been diagnosed with a mental illness is if they tell you. Most people are unaware of how many mentally ill people they know and encounter every day. Some statistics:

  • One in three people will experience some kind of emotional difficulty in their lives
  • One in five people in Ontario will experience a mental illness at some point in their lifetime.
  • Mental illness affects people of all ages, in all kinds of jobs and at all educational levels.1

Mental illnesses are present in the Baha’i community in the same proportion as in the community at large. The Baha’i teachings give us insight into how Baha’is should think about mental illness, and can help us share in the “stigma busting” efforts of mental health professionals, community mental health organizations, support groups and individuals. These include: .

  • To visit and pray for those who are ill
  • To be compassionate towards those who have a mental illness2
  • To remember that mental illness does not affect the spirit3
  • If we have a mental illness:
    • To seek medical treatment
    • To have faith that our difficulties can be overcome
    • To assist in our own recovery through prayer and personal effort4
    • To serve others
    • To teach the Faith5
  1. Based on a fact sheet from the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario division http://www.ontario.cmha.ca, “About Mental Health” section.
  1. Letters written on behalf of the Guardian stated that “his heart goes out to you in your fear and suffering…”, and acknowledged that “it is very hard to be subject to any illness, particularly a mental one”, and that “such illness is truly a heavy burden to bear”
  1. “…these illnesses have nothing to do with our spirit or our inner relation to God. No matter how much you or others may be afflicted with mental troubles…know that your spirit is healthy, near to our Beloved, and will in the next world enjoy a happy and normal state of soul…” (Letter written on behalf of the Guardian)
  1. “Such hindrances (i.e., illness and outer difficulties), no matter how severe and insuperable they may at first seem, can and should be effectively overcome through the combined and sustained power of prayer and of determined and continued effort.” (Letter written on behalf of the Guardian)
  1. “That effort can include the counsel of wise and experienced physicians, including psychiatrists. Working for the Faith, serving others who may need you, and giving of yourself can aid you in your struggle to overcome your sufferings. One helpful activity is, of course striving to teach the Cause in spite of personal feelings of shortcomings, thus allowing the healing words of the Cause to flood your mind with their grace and positive power.” (The Universal House of Justice).

These and other quotations on mental illness can be found in Lights of Guidance, sections 947-957.