The Christophers: Kicking The Stigma
By Fr. Ed Dougherty, M.M.,
The Christophers’ Board of Directors
As another year draws to a close, one of the things that should be left behind is the stigma around mental illness. That’s why it’s so great to hear about the initiative undertaken by the Indianapolis Colts football team, called “Kicking the Stigma.” It’s an effort to destigmatize mental illness so that people can understand how common it is to struggle with these issues and to highlight the inherent human dignity of all who suffer.
In an interview with Rich Eisen, Colts owner Jim Irsay said, “The stigma that’s attached with mental illness literally kills people and destroys families.” Irsay goes on to ask everyone to consider how destructive it would be for a stigma to be attached to seeking treatment for any other disease, and then he explains that this is exactly the dilemma faced by those who suffer from mental health issues. Irsay says, “They don’t want to come out and…be called crazy. They don’t want to be called unemployable.”
The reality is that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year, 1 in 6 youth ages 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 34. So when Irsay says that society’s stigmatization of mental illness kills, he’s backed up by the numbers. But this does not have to be the case. We can cultivate an atmosphere where people feel comfortable talking about their problems and seeking help.
Colts’ linebacker Darius Leonard has become a leading voice in destigmatizing mental illness, grounded in his own experiences. In a story put out by the NFL, Leonard said, “It’s OK to not be OK. I knew I needed help, and for a long time, I didn’t reach out. Once I did reach out, I knew that’s what made it better for me. A lot of people have a stigma, especially as men, that you can’t show weakness. I’m letting the world know, as a professional football player, a linebacker, one of the most aggressive positions on the field, there’s still no weakness because you’re having mental health issues.”
This is a powerful message that can help break down the barriers to seeking help that exist in many people’s minds, and it’s a message that coincides with the Christian message. Within our faith, we’re encouraged to recognize our broken nature and to constantly submit to the process of seeking healing. When we walk that path, we become better people, who are better able to give of ourselves to others.
Irsay has had his own struggles that have contributed to his vision for “Kicking the Stigma.” He has battled addiction and sought help, saying, “I’m diligent about my recovery. It’s like amazing grace; it comes from a higher power, and it just starts with the willingness for people to say, ‘Help me, I surrender, I can’t do it. God, You can, I’m turning my life and my will over to the care of God.’”
Irsay now finds meaning in a life of service, which demonstrates the path we are all called to walk. We must seek healing in order to build ourselves up, and only then can we utilize our gifts to make the world a better place. Engaging in this process is the path of true courage. So let’s join in “kicking the stigma” and build a society where the acts of both seeking and offering healing are celebrated for the compassion and courage they entail.
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