What I learned from Catholics with psychological struggles
When journalist MARY REZAC sounded out her Catholic Facebook friends on mental health and faith, the response taught her some important lessons.
A few weeks ago, I put out a little blurb on my personal Facebook wall. It went something like this:
“Hi friends! I’m working on a story about whether Catholics tend to over-spiritualise psychological problems, and whether there’s a stigma in the Church against those with mental health illnesses. If you have had experience with this and would like to comment, feel free to shoot me a personal message!”
Normally my friends on social media are actually pretty good at responding to these sorts of requests, but the response I got to this little Facebook post was overwhelming.
So many people either messaged me to share their own experiences, or were able to refer me to professionals they knew. Family, close friends, people I haven’t talked to in a while, friends of friends of friends—I heard from people across the board.
The topic has been on a to-do list of features that we have at the office, but it was a particularly personal story for me to work on because depression runs in one side of my family. I also have several close friends who have depression, anxiety and other psychological struggles.
It’s a topic that’s not easy. It’s a topic that required some extra prayers to Mary and the Holy Spirit, pre-and-post-interviews, so that the peace of Christ would reign over these difficult but necessary conversations.
An article can only be so long, and can only delve into so much. So here are some things I learned while working on this piece that couldn’t fit into my article.
You are not alone
If you’re dealing with psychological illness as a Catholic, you’re not a failure, and you’re not alone. There are so many people who, at the sight of a Facebook post, were willing to share their experiences with me.
It’s also important to remember that despite appearances, nobody has it all together.
A psychologist, Dr Jim Langley, told me: “The most common thing I see is the families that are at church, and everybody thinks they’re just the most wonderful, put together family that’s out there. And I’m seeing half of them in therapy probably because no family is perfect. The problem is when families are so focused on appearances or coming across as this wonderful Catholic family that they just don’t want to deal with it.”
You can’t ‘pray it away’
Prayer is a very powerful and necessary part of psychological healing. But just as you wouldn’t tell a cancer patient to “just pray it away”, you also should not tell someone with mental illness to “just pray it away”.
That said, there are powerful forms of healing and deliverance prayers that I have personally seen work small miracles in people’s lives — including my own.
One woman I spoke to shared with me that it was soon after praying a deliverance prayer that she was hospitalised for her depression. She doesn’t consider this a coincidence — she considers it the moment when she finally allowed Jesus to enter those places of her life that she hadn’t let him enter yet, and through that prayer he led her to the miracle of modern medicine and psychological help that she needed to begin to fully heal.
A great source for healing and deliverance prayers is the 2003 book Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverance by Neal Lozano (heartofthefather.com/the-unbound-book). This is the book—and corresponding ministry — that I have seen most often endorsed by reliable, holy priests. (There are likely other healing books and ministries available as well, but I would ask a trusted priest to review them before engaging with any of them.)
Some parishes are also starting to offer healing Masses specifically for intentions of healing of various kinds, where there are often priests and lay faithful available to pray very deliberately with you, and it seems like the Church is just starting to unlock the power and graces available through these particular Masses.
Love, don’t dismiss
If a friend or family member reaches out to you about mental illness, don’t dismiss them, but love them. Listen to their concerns, talk with them when they are lonely, reach out frequently even if your friend might not always respond or want to go out.
“People don’t enjoy time spent with depressed and anxious people. Yet we need people to sit with us, to pull us out of the dark mess that is our minds,” one interviewee told me.
“That can mean sitting silently during a movie, or reading in the same room, or trying to take me out for a walk and understanding I’m not being a jerk if I don’t respond much or seem surly — I’m sick. I need accountability to do the most basic human activities.”
Help them get connected to sources — priests and psychologists — that can offer them expert help. If you’re looking for Catholic psychologists, your local diocesan office is a good place to start.
But it’s also okay to recognise your limits. One person I interviewed said she appreciated it when her friends established clear boundaries for the sake of their own peace of mind and for the sake of the friendship. Being upfront about boundaries and establishing them early is the best approach, rather than realising after the fact that you’ve crossed a line.
It’s also important to remember that God, through both prayer and mental professionals, is the ultimate healer. While it’s so very important to be like Christ to them, it’s okay to recognise that you are not Christ, and will not be their ultimate source of healing or happiness.
As a friend with depression once told me, it’s not worth dragging other people down with you, so it’s perfectly okay to recognise your limits.
Are priests trained?
Someone in a comment box asked about whether priests are given sufficient training to deal with these situations. While the psychologists I spoke with had, for the most part, excellent relationships with many local priests, I also spoke with several lay faithful who had less than desirable responses from priests when it comes to mental illness.
When I spoke with a recently-ordained friend of mine, he said that most US seminaries in his experience have a house counsellor who speaks with every seminarian at some point, and does ongoing work with seminarians. He also said that everything in his training has taught him to not overstep his bounds when it comes to psychological issues.
So it seems that while the training is there, in practice it does not always play out perfectly. Perhaps ongoing training throughout the priesthood is necessary, as well as more open relationships between Catholic psychologists and priests.
Mental illness and faith
The prayer life of someone struggling with mental illness might look rather different than someone without mental illness. It’s probably going to be rather difficult for someone with severe anxiety to meditate in front of the Blessed Sacrament for long periods of time.
Those who have been hurt by the Church may find going to Mass difficult, or sometimes impossible, and the best way that they can love God in their circumstances is to follow what their psychologists have told them.
“Sometimes one of the most spiritual things I do in a day is take my anxiety medicine,” an interviewee told me.
A Theology of the Mind
This is an important topic and conversation that needs to continue. Someone I spoke to for this article put it best:
“We are so comfortable as Catholics talking about theology of the body and human dignity, but what about theology of the mind? I think Catholics with mental health problems can pave a way to balancing the spiritual and the practical by being vulnerable. The problem I have seen is that we lean one way or the other in our world, and we need both.”—CNA