Hope into action on World Mental Health Day

On World Mental Health Day, Peter Waddup, Chief Executive, reflects on Jesus' heart for people affected by leprosy and healing.

Leprosy is all encompassing. It’s a cruel physical disease which attacks the body, and yet it’s the mental torment surrounding it which is often the hardest symptom to bear.

I have sat with people who have been subjected to unimaginable cruelty. They have been beaten, set fire to and cast out of their families and communities. All because they have leprosy, a curable disease that shouldn't even exist today. Overnight the warmth of family life is replaced with the desolation of life on the streets. They are the ‘untouchables’, the unwanted. It’s small wonder that the disease goes hand in hand with anxiety and depression.

The more you think about it, the more absurd and completely incomprehensible it is. Perhaps the cruellest twist is people hiding the early signs of leprosy because they fear rejection.

Tragically this temporary fix only serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They then develop life-long disabilities because they haven't taken the cure soon enough. Now, bearing the physical hallmarks of leprosy, they go on to live out the gut-wrenching heartache of isolation they feared.

The thing that gives me the greatest comfort when it comes to leprosy is the teachings of our Lord Jesus. He knew leprosy was a disease that would last the ages. In his earthly life, Jesus gave the ultimate example of breaking the chains of shame and stigma. The damaging labels and emotions God does not want in our lives.

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Reading the Gospels gives me tremendous hope. Immediately after Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' most famous teaching, he goes on to heal a man of leprosy. For a neglected disease, leprosy was given a remarkable platform by Jesus! And not only was it simply physical healing. Jesus told the man to show himself to the priest. This was a necessary action so that he could be accepted into society again.

Jesus made a point of going out of his way to include the disabled and those with neglected diseases. His very heart was to bring the marginalised and the 'untouchables' back into the fold.

Made possible by our amazing supporters in the UK, I have witnessed the hope of Jesus' teaching in action. I will never forget one young man I met in a Leprosy Mission hospital. The day I arrived coincided with a weekly event of song and dance. This was held in the evening in the corridors outside the ward in a bid to escape the oppressive heat.

I couldn’t help noticing a young man who wasn’t singing. He looked very pale and sick. At times he appeared to be loving the evening. But I also noticed that in the lull between songs an expression that exposed his real feelings. I instantly knew that something was terribly wrong in his life.

The next evening, I was invited into the wards to offer prayer to any patients who were willing. This same young man invited me to sit with him. He said he had recently been diagnosed with leprosy, and that the previous week his wife had drowned. I was told by a hospital worker that her death was very likely to be a suicide. She was unable to come to terms with her husband's leprosy diagnosis.

I prayed and cried with this young man for some time. I only left when I felt he was calmer. I was feeling so desperate that I couldn't do more to help him.

Through the generosity of our supporters, we can take each leprosy patient on a journey to restore their dignity. The mental scars might always be there. But through the compassion of my incredible colleagues, together, we can begin to rebuild lives just as Jesus taught us. This begins by exposing leprosy for what it really is. A tiny bacterium that simply needs to be caught and treated early.