Psychiatric Disabilities

The terms psychiatric disability, mental illness, mental health condition, and brain disorder all describe a wide range of conditions that affect the way a person thinks, acts, and feels. Although the cause of mental illness is not fully understood, these conditions can have intertwined biochemical, psychological, and environmental roots. Many people recover from mental illness, other people have ongoing difficulties, and some people continue to experience periodic episodes that require acute treatment. The intensity and durations of symptoms differ from person to person and can generally be controlled by medication and/or psychotherapy.

Mental illnesses are complex; diagnostic labels and treatment modalities change with each publication of the American Psychiatric Association's official manual. Our goal is to encourage you to be involved with a person rather than to be concerned with a diagnostic label. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and one of the most effective ways we can act on that principle is to treat people as individuals. Each of us is more than the sum of the labels that society may place on us.

At the same time, it is helpful to have some education and understanding about some of the more prevalent ways that mental illnesses are delineated in order to de-stigmatize and de-mythologize their existence. The more we know about the facts of a "mental illness", the more we can separate the "illness" from the individual. The most common categorization of mental illnesses includes:

  • Schizophrenia—characterized by dissociated or fragmented thoughts, hearing voices, and an inability to process information. Few generalizations hold true for all people diagnosed with schizophrenia.
  • Personality Disorders—a class of conditions characterized by poor judgment, lack of trust, and egocentrism, that results in a diminished ability to form and maintain social relationships.
  • Mood Disorders—an umbrella term that describes the most common groupings of psychiatric disorders. The primary symptom is that of changed affect or mood. These mood disorders may be: Manic depressive (bipolar) in which the person experiences periods of boundless energy and of severe depression, Severe depression (unipolar) in which the person has persistent low moods.
  • Anxiety Disorders—affect 13 million people in the U.S.
    • Obsessive Compulsive disorder—persistent distressing thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive, intentional acts (compulsions);
    • Panic disorder—the sudden onset of paralyzing terror or impending doom;
    • Phobias—association of a particular situation or object with dread or intense fear;
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder—specific symptoms that result from exposure to terrifying trauma, such as an act of violence, war, or a natural disaster.
  • Anxiety Disorders include:

There are over 40 million Americans with some form of mental illness, including an estimated 3 million (one in twenty) youth. One in five American families are affected. Yet these numbers are hidden by the powerful stigma of mental illness that causes individuals to hide their own and families to hide a family member's mental illness, often isolating individuals and families when they need community connection most. Support from their faith community can make the difference between life and death.

Remember, each person is unique, whether or not they have psychiatric problems. Therefore, it is impossible to make universal statements about what will enable us all, in our diversity, to be welcomed through accommodation. As with all reciprocal relationships, it is always important and appropriate to ask the people being welcomed what will work for them.

Until you know someone with a psychiatric disability, you may never have had any need to think about the key points that can make relationships easier and more relaxed. With the intent to create a welcoming and relaxed environment for everyone, here are some ground rules we should all keep in mind.

  • Etiquette for Use with People Who Have a Psychiatric Problem