I came across this opinion piece from Priscilla Gilman in the New York Times earlier this week after the link was tweeted by Autism Speaks…one particular section jumped out at me…
Whether reporters were directly attributing Mr. Lanza’s shooting rampage to his autism or merely shoddily lumping together very different conditions, the false and harmful messages were abundant.
Let me clear up a few misconceptions. For one thing, Asperger’s and autism are not forms of mental illness; they are neurodevelopmental disorders or disabilities. Autism is a lifelong condition that manifests before the age of 3; most mental illnesses do not appear until the teen or young adult years. Medications rarely work to curb the symptoms of autism, but they can be indispensable in treating mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
There were at least two misconceptions in this attempt to clear up the misconceptions… mental illness is very common in children and teens. According to the National Institute of Health,
Mental illness is not uncommon among children and adolescents. Approximately 12 million children under the age of 18 have mental disorders. The National Mental Health Association has compiled some statistics about mental illness in children and adolescents:
- Mental health problems affect one in every five young people at any given time.
- An estimated two-thirds of all young people with mental health problems are not receiving the help they need.
- Less than one-third of the children under age 18 who have a serious mental health problem receive any mental health services.
- As many as 1 in every 33 children may be depressed. Depression in adolescents may be as high as 1 in 8.
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-years-olds and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 15-year-olds.
- Schizophrenia is rare in children under age 12, but it occurs in about 3 of every 1,000 adolescents.
- Between 118,700 and 186,600 youths in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental illness.
- Of the 100,000 teenagers in juvenile detention, an estimated 60 percent have behavioral, cognitive, or emotional problems.
The other “misconception” was the statement that autism is not a mental illness. Again, per the National Institute of Health…
A mental illness can be defined as a health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feelings, or behavior (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning. As with many diseases, mental illness is severe in some cases and mild in others. Individuals who have a mental illness don’t necessarily look like they are sick, especially if their illness is mild. Other individuals may show more explicit symptoms such as confusion, agitation, or withdrawal. There are many different mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Do I think this distinction is important? Not really. Are there people in the autism community who think the distinction is important? Absolutely. And that’s the point of this post.
Because of extensive media coverage and public education, the stigma associated with autism has largely disappeared. But the stigma associated with mental illness has largely remained. And that’s especially true in the church.
The public gets that kids and adults who have autism aren’t at fault for their condition. But problems with mental illness are widely attributed to poor or indifferent parenting, sloppy diagnosis or nefarious behavior on the part of pharmaceutical companies. And in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, media reports that the perpetrator had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder led to fear that persons with autism would be tarred with the same brush used to stigmatize persons with mental illness and their families.
The reaction of many in the autism community says far more about the stigma that continues to be associated with mental illness in our culture. While the church has made great progress in serving kids with developmental disorders like autism in the past ten years, the greatest failing (and biggest piece of unfinished business) for Key Ministry from our first ten years is that we haven’t been effective at doing more to advance the cause of kids with mental illness and their families in the church.
Families impacted by mental illness are our modern day lepers in the church. And we all know how Jesus felt about lepers.
Looking for a unique Christmas gift for the person who has everything…including a relationship with Jesus? Consider something from the Key Catalog! You can sponsor anything from an on-site consultation at a local church, the addition of a new site for church-based respite care to a “JAM Session” to help multiple churches launch special needs ministries in your metropolitan area. Click the icon on the right to explore the Key Catalog!