After he got coffee in a plastic mug that he had carried in, he took a seat in a booth across from me, my wife, and my stepson, a developmentally disabled adult who would like to hug everyone.
The man — wearing blue denim overalls, a white T-shirt, a baseball cap, and a longish white beard — looked fiercely at his coffee mug, and began mumbling.
It was impossible not to overhear him, though most of his words were indistinguishable. Yet here and there I could make out “TV,” “American Legion,” “Iraq war.” These were scattered among periodic F-bombs.
And I wondered, What would Jesus do? Then I wondered, What would Jesus have us do? Finally I wondered, When we talk and talk and talk about health care — as we Americans have done for much of this waning year — why do we so seldom include mental health in our discussion?
After all, experts who keep track of these statistics tell us that an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Given our population, that translates to almost 60 million people.
Imagine that. And imagine what that means for ministry and for preparing clergy to handle all this in a reasonable and helpful way.
I have no idea if similar statistics might have been found in Jesus’ time. I just know that he often encountered people who, from what we know today, might have had “a diagnosable mental disorder,” and he sought to heal them.
Almost 2,000 years after these Bible stories were written, I have no way of knowing what to make of the mentally disturbed people Jesus met. I know only that he took them and their disorders seriously.
And I’m not at all sure that we do.
My stepson lives in a Lutheran-sponsored group home and works at a sheltered workshop operated by a county governmental agency. Every year there are people who need the kind of services he requires but who don’t get them because there isn’t enough private or public funding.
And almost no matter where I go I find people on the streets who clearly are in need of mental health care. We used to institutionalize many such people, but the experts eventually decided that other approaches would work better and be less, well, cruel. One result is that we turned out into the community a lot of people who have not been able to cope well with reality.
Was the man at the Monroe City Hardee’s once in an institution? I don’t know. We were (think of all but the Samaritan on the Jericho road) in a hurry to cross the Mississippi River at nearby Hannibal and move on to a family gathering in central Illinois. We didn’t exactly cross to the other side of the road to avoid the man, yet neither did we seek to figure out his needs and how we might help meet them.
But meeting the needs of 26.2 percent of the population cannot depend on in-a-hurry people who happen across such folks. If we care about mental health, we need a systematic approach, one in which people won’t fall through the cracks.
And I can’t imagine why our churches aren’t the leading voices for such a system. If we’re to follow Jesus, he made it clear that he cared about — and for — the mentally distressed. And so should we.
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http://billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected].