Sat | Sep 18, 2021

Faith without works is dead

Florida-based psychologist urges pastors to do more than pray for the mentally ill

Published:Friday | June 25, 2021 | 12:07 AMKaryl Walker/Gleaner Writer
Joan Muir.
Joan Muir.

Jamaica-born South Florida-based clinical psychologist, Dr Joan Muir, is urging pastors and teachers of the Bible to be more proactive when addressing issues of mental health from the pulpit.

The issue of mental health in Jamaica has again come to the fore after the death of 49-year-old Ava Thelwell, who drove her vehicle off the Flat Bridge into the Rio Cobre in St Catherine on Friday, June 5. Thelwell had reportedly not displayed signs of depression or mental health disorder and her suicide came as a surprise to her loved ones.

It has been long shouted from the pulpit that taking one’s life is an unforgivable sin, even though nowhere in the Bible does it speak to the issue directly.

Muir referred to James 2:18 as a guide to assisting pastors who have the mentally ill among their flock.

“Faith without works is dead. It is very important that pastors and teachers of the Bible open up to the teaching to accept that mental illness can be treated in the same way that church members go to the doctor. Depression is the most common form of mental illness and we should not be ashamed to get help. While prayer is effective, many people with mental illness don’t even know what to pray for. Therefore, it is very important to seek out a mental health clinician to help and find out what’s wrong and how to treat it,” Muir told The Gleaner.

Rector of the Episcopal/Anglican Church of the Holy Family in Miami Gardens, Florida, the Reverend Horace Ward, agreed with Muir that more than prayer was needed to assist those with mental illness.

“I don’t know if I can convince church leaders to stop preaching that, but we need to address mental health more proactively. We have to help people to deal with mental illness,” Ward said.

Mental illness has long carried a negative stigma in Jamaica and persons with relatives who suffer from the condition are ashamed, while victims of the disease are most times in denial.

Until recently, courses in psychology were not offered at the tertiary level in Jamaica. Now there are master’s degree courses offered at The University of the West Indies and the Northern Caribbean University.

“There is a stigma, but a lot of it is based on the teachings. When I was going to school in Jamaica, psychology was not taught in the university. So how do you expect a population to know about mental health when it is not taught? We have to take care of our mental and emotional health in the same way we take care of our physical health. Because we are not aware of psychology, we are not aware that mental health intervention is as powerful as medical interventions,” Muir said.

Persons suffering from schizophrenia and other mental maladies are sometimes in denial and may degenerate to a point where they refuse to take their medication. This may lead to a serious mental breakdown which takes a toll on their loved ones.

Many end up on the street if professional help is not available.

Muir had words of advice for persons with relatives who were in denial of their mental condition.

“Seek professional help from someone with experience. Serious mental illness damages your cognitive ability. They will go through chemical imbalances. What the family has to do is to be supportive and suggest that they get back on medication. Families have to be lovingly patient,” she said.