Posted on October 31, 2018 08:21

Dealing with Mental Illness as a Catholic

I was working with a family this week who had mental illness and it was like looking in a mirror. I then thought I might surf the internet for a resource. Here is an article that I found on US Catholic which was written a while ago. I still feel it is relevant for today. I remember the late Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel telling me years ago: "Catholicism helps us deal with things in a way that is at peace with God." At the same time Father Benedict and I had a conversation of how the Church has a lot to learn and has more to grow in terms of how it deals with mental illness. Listen to the words of Our Lord; "“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,* and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”" (Matt 11:28- 30)

Timothy Duff, STM, MA Cert. RCHC, ERD and BCC

Co Founder/ Guardian 


Through a glass darkly: How Catholics struggle with mental illness

(Only the partial article)

By Anna Weaver 

Mental illness is still murky territory for those who experience it, their families, and their church.

Not long after Rich Salazar moved to DeKalb, Illinois from California, he found himself knocking at the door of St. Mary's Church. The then-college student had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was in crisis mode. Unable to reach his mother at work and not knowing where else to go, Salazar told himself, "I have to go to church."

Father William Schwartz answered his knocks and, although the parish was closed for the evening, invited him in. "He talked to me, calmed me down," Salazar says. The priest called his mother and told him he could stay at the church as long as he needed. "He was very kind. I told him the church has never let me down."

That's when Schwartz responded, "Someday it might."

For many Catholics experiencing mental illness and their families, the church can be both a place of welcome and alienation. Just as society has struggled with how to deal with those with mental illness, U.S. parishes and dioceses have found the area equally challenging.

Many in Catholic mental illness advocacy agree with Chicago Deacon Tom Lambert when he says, "As a church we're just beginning to address the issues on a church-wide and institutional level."

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in four Americans has a mental disorder. Of those, one in 17 has a serious mental illness such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

To Portland, Oregon psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Welch, those large numbers mean that every Catholic is affected by mental illness in some way. "The people next to you in the pews may have a mental illness or have family [members] who have mental illness," he says. "By virtue of Baptism, we're all equal members of the church, and we need to be mindful of that."

Shrinking stigma

As research has shown that mental disorders aren't just moods to be shaken off or, in severe cases, uncorrectable issues requiring time in a mental institution, the stigma once attached to them has slowly been eroding.

"The church's response parallels society," says Dorothy Coughlin, the Archdiocese of Portland's director of the Office for People with Disabilities.
Nancy Kehoe, a Society of the Sacred Heart sister and psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, remembers a time when there was a lot of secrecy around mental illness. "If a nun had to be taken to the psychiatric ward in a hospital, there was a lot of shame in having a psychiatric disability," she says. "It wasn't even known to people immediately around her where she went."

On the flip side, Kehoe recalls the public nature of a Cambridge-area pastor who took leave for a few months. Upon his return he announced to his parishioners that he was experiencing depression and would be stepping down to serve a smaller parish and continue dealing with it. But, Kehoe notes, a pastor openly addressing his struggles with depression "was unusual even in 2009."

New Jersey psychologist Kenneth Herman started practicing in 1955 and says that at the time the Catholic clients who came to see him dealt with a lot of guilt, anxiety, and fear over their faith in everything from eating meat on Fridays to sexual issues. "It was a sin if you thought anything that was considered negative," he says. "You got the wrath of the church, and that produced a lot of guilt, especially with people who were a little fragile emotionally."

While Herman doesn't believe the Catholic Church did it intentionally, he says, "The church had an opportunity to send a lot of positive messages, but they didn't." By the time he retired a few years ago, Herman says he saw a change in how Catholics viewed their faith.

Author Therese Borchard writes about how guilt has played a large role in her own struggles with bipolar disorder in her new book, Beyond Blue(Center Street). But she also says that Catholicism is the perfect tradition for those with a mental illness.

"I think the Catholic faith, especially with all its traditions and rituals, can give you a kind of safety," Borchard says. "I joke that there's a saint for every disorder, and if you run out of saints there's always St. Jude for hopeless causes."

Today the church takes more of a holistic approach to mental illness. Welch describes a "synergy between religion and psychology" where there is an awareness of the biological, social, psychological, and spiritual aspects of a person suffering mental illness.

In Kehoe's eyes, suicide is the biggest area of attitude change for the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church still describes it as "gravely contrary to the just love of self," but since the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, suicide is no longer listed as a reason to prevent a Catholic burial.

"Suicide is not a sin anymore," says Kehoe, who in her recent book, Wrestling with Our Inner Angels (Jossey-Bass, 2009), talks about working with suicidal patients. "Other religious traditions have not taken that approach yet."

Baby steps

Outreach to those experiencing mental illness does not need to be as extensive as starting your own social service agency. Many within the church say that while the mentally ill often need a range of services-including access to medicine and counseling-churches can begin by simply making those with mental illness feel welcome.

"If only our parishes knew how simple it is to be the support that people just hunger for," Dorothy Coughlin says. "For so many people with mental illness, what would be most therapeutic in their lives would be relationships and friendships."

"To support a friend with cancer I don't have to be an oncologist. To support a friend with mental illness, I don't have to be a psychiatrist," she adds.
Another refrain among Catholics involved in mental health outreach is that training, beginning at the seminary level, would go a long way toward helping awareness spread throughout the Catholic Church in this country.

"I'd say the majority of priests don't understand what mental illness is about, and they can't identify it when it comes to their door," Salazar says.

Welch says he's heard homilies in which priests referred to someone as crazy or as having a "Prozac moment" and other phrases that can be alienating to a person with mental illness.

Seminaries do pastoral training for areas like marriage and bereavement counseling but don't get into "the big guns" of mental illness, Rakitan says. She'd like to see churches host support and outreach groups not only through outside organizations but on their own.

An example of that is in the Archdiocese of Portland, where Welch started a faith-sharing group with Dorothy Coughlin last year at St. Philip Neri Church. The group gathers to have dinner, go over readings, do reflections, and pray for those who were unable to come that week.

Coughlin remembers one man who came to the group last year before committing suicide. He always used to ask for a window to be opened at the meetings. "We still open the window, remembering him," she says.

Yolanda Ortega'd daughter was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder 25 years ago. The lifelong Catholic believes that God took care of her daughter during her most unstable periods when she was homeless and wandering around the country.

So in April 2006 Ortega started the Faithbased Mental Health Initiative in San Antonio that now includes close to 20 support groups at different area churches, almost half of which are Catholic.

"I do believe that if churches do mental health ministries, they can help to keep people from falling through the cracks," Ortega says with passion. "People with mental illness are much sicker than they need to be, and we as Christians need to care."

She is looking for ways to expand mental health outreach within the Catholic Church and would like to see the Archdiocese of San Antonio follow the lead of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas by appointing a staff person to work on mental health ministry.

Another Faithbased Mental Health Initiative team member, Carmen Ortiz, has helped organize several of the Catholic support groups and leads one at her parish, St. Brigid. She says they chose to have support groups in churches because it's a familiar, comfortable environment.

For the large Hispanic community in San Antonio, Ortiz says, it's also a way to get past the cultural stigma attached to mental illness. "We had to deal with a lot of Hispanics where it's hard for them to open up and talk about it."

Ortiz points to her 40-year-old son, who was a successful graphic designer before developing bipolar disorder, to show how "the disease has no respect for any race or career or anything." While her son is recovering, he still struggles with faith.

"All the [support group] families, when we get together, that's one of the struggles that we share, that because of their illness, our loved ones just give up on God."
Mad at God?

When she was 21 and a newly professed Daughter of St. Paul, Sister Kathryn James Hermes had a stroke that left her paralyzed. She recovered her speech and mobility but developed what was later diagnosed as temporal lobe epilepsy, an organic bipolar disorder.

Her mood disorder left her furious at God. Because she was a nun, she kept going to daily Mass and regular prayers, but, she says, "I would sit in the back of the church and glare at the cross. I couldn't believe for a year that God existed."

The only way Hermes could pray was to read the second half of the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Consolation. "I read those promises of God," she says. "I didn't believe it, and I couldn't find any joy in it."

Her turning point came when she was speaking to her spiritual adviser one day and asked him, "Why me?" His response: "Why not you?"

Hermes says that people tend to believe that God is punishing them and struggle with why they were singled out for this illness. She has since written six books, including Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach (Pauline Books & Media), which tries to show people how to overcome the "Why me?" struggle.

Even a lack of faith is a type of prayer, according to Hermes, though it can be hard to see someone's spiritual life disintegrate, as she has seen in those with whom she's spiritually walked.

"I've told them, and I've seen that it is really true, that this experience can be a grace experience," she says. "Our childhood relationship with God crumbles, but we can find him anew, as an adult on a much deeper level, in a much more profound way."

Unlike many people, those with mental illness can see "the depths and heights of humanity, the soaring glory of the possible and the deep melancholy of life. And that is a gift," Hermes says. She and others in Catholic mental health advocacy hope the church continues to get even better at finding, as Hermes says, the "beautiful in the brokenness."


This article appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 2, pages 12-17).

Image: Tom Wright

Anna Weaver is the multimedia editor at Northwest Catholicmagazine and lives in the Seattle area.



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