Growing up, I looked up to the saints as the ideal role models. If I wanted to explore or learn about new places, stories of St. Francis Xavier fueled my adventures. Frustration with school caused me to ask for the intercession of St. Thomas Aquinas. Stomach aches, travel, singing, cooking, searching for a lost item – there seemed to be a saint to learn from for everything.
Yet as mental illness crept into my life, I slowly stopped turning to the saints for help. After all, which of these holy people would suffer from weaknesses like mine? Thoughts like this pushed me farther away from not only the saints, but God as well.
After years of ignorance and shaming, we are finally beginning to understand mental illnesses. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, addictions – these are no longer taboo topics that people attempt to hide from the public eye, confuse for evil spirits or blame on bad parenting.
According to the World Health Organization in September 2010, over 450 million people globally struggle with mental disorders. That is almost 150 million more than the entire United States population.
Nearly every person knows someone who deals with a mental illness. If you do not think that you do, someone probably has not disclosed to you that information yet.
Pope John Paul II affirmed the worth of those individuals at the International Conference for Health Care Workers on November 30, 1996 when he spoke on Illnesses of the Human Mind:
\”Whoever suffers from mental illness \’always\’ bears God\’s image and likeness in themselves, as does every human being. In addition, they \’always\’ have the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also to be treated as such.”
These serious illnesses are not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, people who suffered from poor mental health were misdiagnosed, excluded from society or killed by their disease. Even holy men and women such as the saints dealt with mental illness.
Despite my ashamed perception of my sickness, I finally learned that there is nothing about these health problems that is sinful by themselves. Someone does not choose to have obsessive-compulsive disorder or anorexia anymore than a cancer patient chooses to be sick.
Thus, turning to saints, blesseds and venerables who continued to serve God despite their disorders can be helpful for those struggling today. Here are several who either dealt with mental illness or were strongly impacted by it that I have found helpful and inspirational.
Alcoholism: Venerable Matt Talbot
Born in 1856 in Dublin, Venerable Matt Talbot grew up in a poor family with an alcoholic father. By the age of 12, the youth began working as a messenger boy for wine merchants. This job and his father’s habits started Matt’s own addiction to alcohol. For 15 years, this struggle grew worse causing him to spend all of his money on drinking. Drunkenness caused Matt to fight, swear, and lose his temper easily.
Finally, the man needed to sell of his possessions – even his shoes – to pay for his addiction. One night, his friends left him alone at work without offering to pay for a drink. This moment made Matt realize the need to be free of alcohol.
That night, he took “the pledge” which was a promise to not drink for three months. Going to Mass and confession that night sealed his decision. His mother responded to Matt’s choice by stating, \”Go, in God\’s name, but don\’t take it unless you are going to keep it. May God give you strength to keep it.\”
Despite the immense struggle, Matt kept this pledge and eventually made it a lifelong decision at the age of 28 in 1884. His use of tobacco also ended. Maintaining this proved difficult because his family and friends continued to drink. Instead of lapsing, however, he turned to his faith and found strength from Jesus and the saints.
Eventually, he joined the Franciscan Third Order in 1891 and spent most of his days in prayer. Poor health, however, sent him to the hospital numerous times. In 1925 at 69-years-old, he died while walking to Mass on Trinity Sunday.
Suicidal ideation and depression: Blessed Clara Isabella Fornari
Anna Felicia Fornari, born in Rome in 1697, entered the Poor Clares of Todi as a novice at the age 15. Her name became Clara Isabella the next year after she took her vows. Following this, extraordinary experiences happened to her regularly. Visions of Jesus, Mary, Saint Clare of Assisi and Saint Catherine lasted for long periods of time and filled her with great ecstasy.
Stigmatism, where she experienced the wounds of Christ, also brought closer union with God but great suffering. Her forehead bleed as if a crown of thorns were upon it as did her pierced hands, feet, and side. Aware of her suffering, Jesus gave her a marriage ring during one of her visions. His title for her was His “spouse of sorrow.”
Despite her nearness to God, Clara Isabella was tormented by despair and her physical pain. The devil taunted her relentlessly, making her wish to commit suicide and abandon her faith. This deep depression overwhelmed her completely. At times, she could not remember the beauty of her visions. Her joy returned right before her death.
Mental illness, emotional disorders, insanity, abuse and depression: Saint Dymphna
Probably the best known saint for those struggling with mental health, Saint Dymphna was born in the 7th century to a royal family in Ireland. Her mother was a devout Catholic, but her father Damon was not religious. Upbringing and care from Dymphna’s mother installed in the child a deep faith.
However, the beautiful woman died when her daughter was around 14-years-old. In his grief, Damon suffered from severe mental illness to the point of near insanity. After he decided to marry Dymphna to replace his wife, the girl fled to Belgium with two family servants and a priest, Saint Gerebernus. Unfortunately, Damon tracked down his daughter. After killing the priest, the soldiers were ordered to cut of Dymphna’s head is she refused to marry Damon.
Remaining true to her faith and beliefs, the teenager refused her father’s command. In response, the furious man killed her himself. Now, Dymphna is the patron saint for numerous things including therapists, incest victims, mentally ill people and loss of parents.
These three holy people are only a few of the many saints who struggled with mental illness. If you are struggling with a mental illness or know someone who is, encourage them to look at these examples of others who served God despite the great hardship. Finding this source of comfort and inspiration can help us to feel less shame and grow in our faith no matter our illness.