Mental illness not caused by ‘bad' parenting

Mental illness not caused by ‘bad' parenting

November 13, 2014
Written by Staff Reports

The year was 1980. The place was Bangor, Maine. Two events happened which would change our entire family's future and start us on a mission (one quite different from parish ministry and overseas missions in our past), a call from the "God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor.1:3b-4).
      At 4:30 a.m., the Monday after Easter, I was awakened by the phone ringing. It was my mother telling me that my brother had died of a self- inflicted shotgun wound. At 10:30 p.m., July 4, the phone rang again. It was a doctor in Fort Kent, Maine, on the northern border to Canada, telling us there was something seriously wrong with our son, then 17, who had been attending a summer theater workshop. This began a journey into the world of "mental" illness which, prior to this, we hardly knew existed.
      Our son was hospitalized for four months and we were told (verbally and non-verbally) that we were "bad" parents. Many hospitalizations, experiences and years later, through providentially being led to The Johns Hopkins Health Care System in Baltimore, we learned that our son and my brother had a genetically-based brain disorder, commonly known as manic-depression and medically known as bipolar disorder. We learned that this illness had nothing to do with "bad" parenting, and that treatment was available.
      In the last 10 years, research has discovered more knowledge about the brain than was known before in all of history combined, and this knowledge is doubling every five years. There is no need for others with these illnesses to suffer as my brother and our son did. Our mission is to spread THIS word to the approximately one in five persons and their families who suffer from these brain disorders in order to break the cycle of societal stigma and discrimination which still results in a "conspiracy" of silence. I am focusing on the serious "mental" illnesses that are known to be BRAIN illnesses: schizophrenia; bipolar, unipolar, obsessive/compulsive and panic/anxiety disorders.
      To this end, I authored the resolution which was passed unanimously by the Penn Central Conference and General Synod 22, titled "Calling the People of God to Justice for Persons with Serious ‘Mental' Illnesses (Brain Disorders)." The Resolution asks for education in all settings of the church, advocacy in legislative circles and equity in our own Pension Boards' health insurance coverage related to these devastating brain illnesses, which wreak havoc in many peoples' lives if left untreated because of ignorance, stigma and discrimination.
      God is calling all of us to forsake fear, ignorance and denial, and to comfort (and minister to) others so afflicted, whom we meet in our personal lives and in our congregations, or in ourselves. We are all made in God's image and are God's beloved. Let's live like we really believed that.

The Rev. Norma S. Mengel is past Associate for Program, Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (UCC), past President/CEO of the Visiting Nurse Association of York, Pa and a registered nurse. Read the Synod resolution in the General Synod minutes pdf file at and see document p. 113 (Adobe Acrobat p. 122). For information on Brain Disorders, see or call 800/950-NAMI (6264)

 Focus on Faith is a reader-written column of stories and ideas to help readers grow in their faith. The Rev. Lawrence A. Q. Burnley is Executive for Racial and Ethnic Constituency Education and Development for the United Church Board for World Ministries. Focus on Faith is a reader-written column of stories and ideas to help readers grow in their faith.

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