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
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.
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.