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Catholics and Mental Illness: Coming Out of the Shadows

May 13, AD2017 24 Comments

Since mental illness is as common and invisible among the faithful as it is in secular circles,  concern for mental health cannot simply be relegated to the secular sphere, especially during Mental Health Awareness month in May. I admit the topic of how and why Catholics experience mental illness might seem completely irrelevant to most Catholics. After all, many of us are too busy with daily life to actually step back and evaluate the state of our mental health objectively. Meanwhile, our fellow parishioners are just as concerned as we are that they appear healthy, happy, and whole in public.

Yet, I would wager that mental health issues are especially prevalent among the devout who are serious about their inner life because when people tackle deep inner issues which prevent God from working in their lives, their inner equilibrium is upset by stress, anxiety, and depression. This probably explains why most saints experienced profound periods of depression when they finally looked beneath their pious actions to face the reality of their own ingrained sin and subsequent need for inner purification.

Mental Illness Is Not a Sign of  a Weak Character

Most make an appointment every year with their G.P. to check out their physical health and reluctantly arrange for a dental check up but why don’t people also undergo a routine mental health check up? Some people might laugh off the implication there is anything wrong with how their brains function. Others might nervously skim the rest of this article, fearing they have problems. However, this question is far from ridiculous. Have you taken a good look around lately? What do you see and hear?

Modern society is stressful; people are anxious about the economy and job security. They have problems sleeping; many self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes to help ‘take the edge off’. More and more sick days are the result of depression and other mental health issues. Incredibly, it never enters most people’s minds to seek professional help until they are in a crisis because there still is a stigma attached to mental illness.

Even ‘Normal’ Catholics Need Therapy

Tragically, few Catholics discover the root of their spiritual malaise because often it means seeking psychological help. We all have psychological impairments, generational cycles, selfish habits, pride, controlling and other errant behaviors. God offers His children the means to become free from sin, bad habits and mental illness through the Church, prayer, confession but also through therapy.

It is especially important for Catholics to understand the causes of mental illness, instead of judging those who suffer as lazy or at fault for some reason or other. It is even worse when believers deny their own need for help. When people cannot understand these unseen illnesses, they simply fall back on age-old admonishments,

Well, we all have our cross to bear.

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

You’d feel better if you went to Mass more often.

What do you have to be depressed about?

Have you been praying/ going to confession?

 Volunteer and you won’t have time to brood.

No one actually believes people are to blame if they need eyeglasses to read or insulin to fight diabetes but they still heap abuse on people with depression or anxiety as if these diseases were signs of a weak character or a lack of faith. Triggers for mental illness can be as simple as increased stress or a lack of sleep to a more serious reaction to a traumatic event such as war or abuse, anything which throws off the chemical balance in the brain. Some people just need medication to balance their serotonin levels to heal mental illness just like some people need insulin.

The Bucket Theory Explains Mental Illness

The stress vulnerability bucket theory is a way to explain why some people experience anxiety, depression, paranoia or a psychotic episode, while other people seem to handle life with ease. I heard this illustration explained at a conference more than 10 years ago and I find that it is still the easiest way to explain why some people slip into mental illness.

Think of each person’s ability to handle stress as a bucket with holes in the bottom. Some people, from stable home backgrounds with relaxed, cheerful temperaments, might have a large bucket to handle stress while others, who are high-strung or perhaps wounded from child abuse or an unstable home life as children, might have a smaller bucket.

Now, imagine stress as water filling up each bucket. If a lot of water comes into a bucket, in other words, if a person experiences a great deal of stress, then the bucket can overflow. People with big buckets, or a low-level of vulnerability, can cope with more stress while people with smaller buckets can cope with less stress. Many situations in life stress us all out, like relationship problems, money worries or family problems.

If you manage stress by using helpful ways of coping, then this gets rid of the stress in the bucket by punching holes in the bottom of the bucket. Helpful coping would be an activity such as talking through your problems with someone or getting a good nights sleep, going for a walk or taking a long hot bath to relax your muscles. The best way for me to de-stress physically, mentally and emotionally, is to relax in prayer or meditation, the kind that leads me into deep rest.

Really, it is not important if your bucket is large or small. The key to living a balanced, ‘sane’ life is to keep the holes in the bottom of your bucket open, so stress can flow out. Everyone would benefit from some kind of therapy to understand how they unconsciously plug up the holes in their buckets. And sometimes people also need medication, especially if they need help sleeping.

Unresolved Grief

A relatively unknown cause of depression is unresolved grief. Unresolved grief is a new concept in mental health circles. Secular doctors are beginning to realize it is the root cause of many emotional problems.

In Catholic terminology, unresolved grief occurs when we cling to those who have died, refusing to surrender their souls to God or embrace our new relationship to them in the Mystical Body of Christ. Unresolved grief also haunts those who have had an abortion or suffered a miscarriage. Sometimes a miscarriage can even affect the remaining children in a family, even if they are unaware of the miscarriage at the time.

A friend, Catholic psychiatrist facilitates a group of faith-filled men and women who are learning how to grieve and release their forgotten ancestors to God, as well as miscarried and aborted souls in their family background. The change in these people, some who have been in therapy for decades, is miraculous. Unresolved grief was at the root of their mental illness.

The Sins of Our Ancestors Can Also Trigger Mental Illness

(Fr. Robert Stackpole, STD, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, has written an excellent explanation of how our ancestors affect us. See The Sins of Our Ancestors)

Babies do not simply inherit physical characteristics from their ancestor but personalities and even blessings and curses which have been passed down through the generations. Although my children came from the heart of God, with a Divine spark in their souls, they are human beings with faults, weaknesses and even sin inherited from their ancestors.

Numbers 14:18 ‘The Lord  . . . will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

This is not simply an Old Testament teaching. With the help of a spiritual director, I have discovered generational curses deep in my soul, hidden from me till  I began the inner journey.

Romans 5:12  Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

 How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”.293 By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.294 It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act.

When we grow closer to God and His light pierces deep into our being, generational sin is revealed in our core self. I discovered my paternal, grandmother had been pressing in on me, asking for prayer my entire life but it wasn’t until the light of Christ brought the issue to light that I began to experience mental anguish. I learned my pregnant grandmother died accidentally under extreme duress as a young mother while still in her twenties. Unfortunately, her husband was at war. This incident occurred in the 1940’s. She was denied a Christian burial in the Catholic Church and my father’s family left the Catholic Church when the war was over.

My own process of purification would have been even more confusing and even frightening than it was if I didn’t have an experienced spiritual director to show me how to confess and release each sin and oppressive spirit I had inherited from my grandmother to Christ:

Galatians 3:13  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—

James 5:16  Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

Romans 8:2  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Even with guidance, the stress I experienced as I dealt with these inherited inner roots was barely tolerable.

It took years before I understood the spiritual and emotional weight I carried was blocking me from receiving God’s love. Yet, this spiritual block was not the result of my own sin or failings.What I felt was my deceased grandmother’s guilt, shame and sense of unforgiven sin in my own emotions. At times I identified with her feelings, thinking incorrectly that they were part of my own identity. It sounds bizarre but, unfortunately, my experience is common.

Becoming whole and holy is a messy process, one which no one can tackle alone. Let’s take advantage of all the help we can get, everyone from confessors to counsellors, even if that means seeking out help from a mental health professional.

Does this topic seem completely irrelevant to you? I will leave you with a thought.

One in four people suffers from mental illness sometime in their life.

Think of three friends.

If they all seem fine, looks like you’re the one.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Melanie Jean Juneau serves as the Editor in Chief of Catholic Stand. She is a mother of nine children who has edited her kid's university term papers for over a decade. She blogs at  joy of nine9 and mother of nine9 . Her writing is humorous and heart warming; thoughtful and thought-provoking. Part of her call and her witness is to write the truth about children, family, marriage and the sacredness of life. Melanie is the administrator of ACWB, a columnist at CatholicLane, CatholicStand, Catholic365 , CAPC, author of Echoes of the Divine and Oopsy Daisy, and coauthor of Love Rebel: Reclaiming Motherhood

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  • PatriciaFraide

    A very thought provoking essay on depression. I’ve suffered from depression for as long as I can remember in various degrees. It was diagnosed as bi polar some years ago. I’ve been on different medications and finally one is working. However I still have a great sense of sadness and even guilt. I’m aware of where the guilt from my own sins and go to confession for those. I still will be left with that same sense of guilt though. I’ve worried that the problem may be distrust that I’m not really forgiven. This would then be a sin against the Holy Spirit, an unforgivable sin! Of great fear as any Catholic can see. Your essay gives me thought that it may be instead, guilt I may be carrying from my ancestors. This is a huge relief for me! Now my problem would be how to find a good spritual director that could help. I can look back at my immediate family and discern guilt I may carry of their sins, but not knowing much about the rest would be a problem, any suggestions that could help? I could go on about myself, but I don’t want to do this on a public forem. Thank you and God bless you!

    • Melanie Juneau

      We all have difficulty receiving forgiveness. God understands our fears, knows exactly how we are wired and still loves us with a boundless Mercy. i great start is to simply confess your burdens; just say the words to begin with and the process of healing will start. Giving God permission to do His will in us is all the opening He needs to start the process of inner transformation.. Then ask Him to open doors, guide you to a good spiritual director and watch what happens.

    • PatriciaFraide

      Thank you for your kind response. I’ll continue to pray, now for a spiritual director.

  • Irish

    I am sorry about the situation with your grandmother. I know it may be painful but could you elaborate on the conditions in which she accidentally died? I have an idea but it may help to know the circumstances better and how it related to your feelings.

    • Melanie Juneau

      My grandmother was pregnant ( our sense was as the result of a rape) and died accidentally when she tried a herbal remedy to cause an abortion- thus I carried her guilt, grief, condemnation and sense of being cut off from God…that I was an evil, bad person

  • Maria A.

    An aspect of generational effect of sin is explained by some as an unholy soul tie with the enemy , not God ‘punishing ‘ one and this because of the ‘invitation ‘ and power given the enemy through sinful choices , even over family lines from such choices .
    The pride that our First Parents succumbed to , when they listened to the lie that the enemy knows better than The Father – similar aspects often plays out in minds and hearts , in most wrong choices .

    Our Lord , in turn , surrender , in trusting love to The Father , thus having garnered for us the merits and mercy , for us to call upon for all occasions – often recalling the moments of His betrayal and rejection by His own , the authorities and the love and courage of His Mother , esp. all through The Passion .
    The Spirit of the Father , who is with The Lord , is His strength that He pours out for our sake as The Blood and Water , to destroy the works of the enemy , to fill us and those who call upon same with His grace , for conversions –

    http://www.divinemercy.org/index.php/elements-of-divine-mercy/3-o-clock-prayer/108-interceeding-for-sinners-at-3-oclock-by-val-conlon.html

    Having the Divine Mercy Image is also a way to trust in The Lord and His promises .

    True, good to have the humility that we may not know all the reasons or the time needed for deliverance from effects of wrong choices , thus good to have the patience and perseverance and the supportive , empathetic help from others as therapy in such regard also to help .

    • Melanie Juneau

      thank you

  • Maria A.

    An aspect of generational effect of sin might be also well portrayed in the
    case of Sarah and Abraham ; fear of own safety seemed to have led Abraham to abandon his wife Sarah to the Pharaoh on the first such occasion ; he is given gifts in return , including the Egyptian maid ; Sarah ( who probably could have carried some resentment ) is left childless for years and the progeny of the maid , as prophesied , having the wild rebellious streak .The circumcision too , likely given symbolic of removing the flesh connection with Egypt , through Sarah .

    Abraham is given an occasion later , to shows his fidelity to God in that he was willing to do what God asked for , in surrendering to God what would have been dearer to him than own life – his own son .

    The Lord , who took upon self all such debts of sin , to deliver us from its ties , thus negating the need for circumcision and able to tame the wildness through His Spirit – may there be many who would invoke The Blood and water , repenting and asking for mercy for sins of others too ,down in family lines as well , thus to help deliver many from ongoing effects of deep bitterness and divisions , that all can thus thank The Lord , trusting in His mercy , the joy of which could be a good antidote for many fears and unhappiness .
    An overlooked item that leads to irritability etc can be low Magnesium ;some Epsom salt in water , with a few drops of olive oil in a bottle to spray on the body or just massaging same on before sleep can have many beneficial effects – articles on benefits of Magnesium are on line .

    Chewable B 12 for older adults might be another easily overlooked simple remedy that can also help esp. those in their later 40s and on , since B 12 may not absorb that well in older ones when just swallowed .

    • Melanie Juneau

      You bring up excellent points, especially the need to look to natural cures – all provided for our health by God

  • Maria A.

    Thank you for writing on a topic that is very relevant , esp. in our times with its debt of burden of sins against life and related effects all around and in also mentioning the good of the Holy Mass to be offered for miscarried children as well .
    The fascinating account of exorcism on how objects that are not visible on X rays materialize on the tip of tongue as nails etc is a reminder as to how the divide between physical and spiritual is not as concrete as we tend to think of .
    The aspect of ‘confessing ‘ sins of ancestors – would like the clarification , whether same is in the format of confessing same to The Lord ,asking for mercy or mentioning same , in a sacramental confession – having never heard of the latter .

    The good about reading the Old Testament ( listening to same on car trips can be a good use of time ) all the transgressions mentioned there in can be seen as what is also part of our family tree ,yet all of same dwarfed by The Tree , with The Blood and Water flowing out , to cover every aspect of same so that we can also keep thanking The Lord through it all , which is done at its best at the Holy Mass .
    In Rosary prayers etc too , Bl.Mother too doing same with us and for us too .

  • mainstreetpov

    From what i know, you’re mixing up depression ‘the blues’ to clinical depression. There is a difference. I know of a nun who had a stroke in her 20’s, while a nun, and as a result of the stroke became bipolar. There was a medical term for it causing the brain to malfunction resulting in the form of bipolar. Some people who have had concussions end up with a brain disorder where stimulation, such as a playing a video game, can cause depression. I know of someone close who remembers having depression at the age of four with no reason, no abuse of any kind, no devastating losses. Had memory problems and concentration problems throughout the school years and finally found out what it was and it was Bipolar disorder. Only medication has helped. Therapy throughout the years didn’t help with the symptoms. Only medicine helped. I know people who have had it that say they are born with it. The person is a devout Catholic, goes to confession regularly, prays alot and loves God and knows God loves and forgives this person.

    • Melanie Juneau

      The group I meet with suffer from clinical depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia, and have been suicidal. They are all on meds but unresolved grief and generational sin also play a role in their healing and inner freedom. I do mention that….” Some people just need medication to balance their serotonin levels to heal mental illness just like some people need insulin.”

    • ericdijon

      I personally know an individual who suffers with head injury~personality disorder and know close-up how impressive the condition is, and also a therapist who specializes in reorienting sufferers towards recognizing how to live fuller lives living with it. Prayer and a strong relationship with the Lord provide great coping assets for these victims.

  • ericdijon

    It took years before I understood the spiritual and emotional weight I carried was blocking me from receiving God’s love. I’m so sorry you and countless others, including myself, have had trouble with this. Your essay is all over the place with excellent points, but this is a huge topic that can only be covered insufficiently in a single blog essay. I hope you can make time to produce an ongoing series of these various points of spiritual sufferings. All of us need this kind of assuring help. The link to Fr. Robert Stackpole is, as your wrote, excellent. Your personal suffering sounds very similar to a co-dependency–one of the worst forms of stress to resolve, I think. In each suffering, we must meditate about where Jesus is during our trial. Assuredly, Jesus is with us and he wants the best for us; we need to locate him in each trial and rest our head on his chest and take in his perspective.

    • Melanie Juneau

      Thank you for the idea of writing a series of essays on mental illness because I squeezed four essays into one this time. And thank you for your wisdom; I am taking it to heart.

  • Suellen Ann Brewster

    Thank you, Melanie. I haven’t thought of taking ancestral sins to the confessional before. I believe in generational curses as firmly as I believe in DNA. When the Holy Spirit brings some soul to my heart and mind I pray for them and have Masses said. Do you have Masses said? I was thinking about the confession aspect and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Then the Holy Spirit brought to my mind Pope John Paul 2 asking forgiveness of the Jews for the sins of Catholics against them. Very interesting indeed.

    • Melanie Juneau

      Confession is part of the process of becoming whole but the Mass is THE most powerful tool we have at our disposal for setting our ancestors free from Purgatory and setting our own souls free from their pleas for our prayers. These pleas can cause sleeplessness, depression, etc. Pope John Paul II understood that we are all connected to one another in the Body of Christ. As the Holy Spirit pierces deeper into our being, He reveals the hidden, ancestral roots of our suffering- the core reason for our dysfunction/sin/ illness.

  • adam aquinas

    Yes, mental illness sadly effects a significant proportion of the human population. I assume that you are neither a psychologist nor psychiatrist, so I can excuse your reasons for the existence of mental illness in the faithful or not so faithful. Your answers are not really answers to this grace problem.
    Eric Kandel, MD, a Nobel Prize laureate and professor of brain science at Columbia University, believes it’s all about biology. “All mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases,” he says. “The brain is the organ of the mind. Where else could [mental illness] be if not in the brain?”
    Biochemical disruptions of the brain and genetics are leading causes and through neuro imaging we can very these statements. The cure or the alleviation of mental illness lies in biology and in the brain.
    http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/06/roots.aspx

    • Underneath your answer and your reliance on a Nobel Prize and an MD, is the limitation of materialism. Even a child could say, “All…are biological diseases,” if that is your world view.

    • adam aquinas

      That is not a rational response … all mental illness, all dis-eases manifest biologically. and or biochemically. Not only an MD, and a Nobel Prize winner, but the positions of the APA and APsychA…..The world view you espouse if you refer to the post : “That which can be asserted without proof can be rejected without proof.”

    • I did not deny that diseases manifest themselves visibly. You appear to limit the cause and cure to physical manipulation. Proof is always found through reasoning, what you present is favored authority only.

    • Melanie Juneau

      I do mention biological causes for mental illness which can be triggered by “…anything which throws off the chemical balance in the brain. Some people just need medication to balance their serotonin levels to heal mental illness just like some people need insulin.”

    • ericdijon

      This link queues up 6 videos. I think you’ll like them. They do not omit God.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjQEILKhrK8

    • ericdijon

      Really? Are you a mental health professional? Are you insinuating in your contrasting argument something relating to operations of the hypothalamus? Because, if you are, then you cannot refute that one’s free will can in fact learn to control improved hypothalamic responses. That secures the authority of your biological argument and also validates the of the spiritual perseverance the essay imparts in order to seek spiritual healing.