In a recent homily, I shared the Bible story of Jesus being approached by a man who was possessed by "the spirit of an unclean demon." The man begins shouting at Jesus, "Did you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God."
The evil spirits knew who Jesus was, and they were terrified of him.
Jesus could have ignored the man and walked away, reasoning that this person was nothing but trouble, was being shunned by society and was the problem – and the responsibility – of the community in which he lived.
But instead, Jesus acted with authority, respecting the man and showing empathy for his suffering.
"Be quiet, and come out of him," Jesus commanded. The story tells us that in a last gesture of defiance, the demon convulsed the man before leaving him and disappearing.
The people who witnessed this miracle were amazed, both by Jesus' decision to help the man and by the power and authority with which he acted.
Today, we know that people who were once thought to be "possessed" are suffering from mental illness. Unfortunately, like the man in the Bible story, these folks are still often seen as nuisances, bothers or disrupters, and are pushed into the margins of society – out of sight, out of mind.
Mental health has been a hot topic in the news lately. Whenever a mass shooting or some similar terrible event occurs, mental illness and how to deal with it draws a lot of attention from the media, politicians and experts in the field. But in between those headline-grabbing incidents, mental illness, which so many people suffer from in silence, often gets ignored. Unless you have a family member or a close friend who has a disorder, there aren't many discussions about the topic.
At Boys Town, we know a lot about mental and behavioral health issues. Every day, we care for kids who, through no fault of their own, are imprisoned by a mental illness or behavioral issue that deprives them of a happy, healthy life and puts their parents and siblings on an emotional roller coaster. Our research and experience has produced positive ways to help children to cope with their disorders and move toward enjoying fulfilling lives. We give kids hope by caring.
Which brings us back to the story of Jesus and the possessed man. There's a lot that kids – and adults – can learn from how Jesus responded when he encountered someone who was a societal outcast because he was "different."
So talk to your children about what mental illness is, and teach them to accept and understand people who might behave differently because they are struggling with a mental health issue. Praise your children when they act with authority and courage, as Jesus did, to reach out in kindness and friendship to boys and girls they know who are living with these challenges.
Your teaching can include the skill of "Showing Sensitivity to Others." It's one of the basic skills we teach the youth in our care at Boys Town. Here are the steps:
- Express interest and concern for others, especially when they are having troubles.
- Recognize that physically or mentally disabled people deserve the same respect as anyone else.
- Apologize or make amends for hurting someone's feelings or causing harm.
Talking to your kids about mental illness isn't easy, and raising their awareness of it won't guarantee the desired outcome in every situation. But change starts with small steps.
Using "What would Jesus do?" moments to teach your children how to accept and have empathy for others can be the first one.