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Beyond Blue

Here’s an excellent article written by Douglas Todd for Religion News Service about Archbishop Roussin’s depression and how he is fighting for better understanding of mental illness within religious communities.

Once again, Roussin is my hero!

Archbishop Raymond Roussin remembers the shame he felt when he first admitted to himself and others he was clinically depressed.

“It was humiliating,” said Roussin, who three years ago was appointed head of the sprawling Greater Vancouver archdiocese. “I thought, ‘How could I possibly be mentally ill?’ Such people are supposed to be put away, or drugged to death.”

One day in the late summer of 2005, Roussin woke up trembling.

“I started crying and didn’t know why. I couldn’t get out of bed. I dreaded coming through this door,” he said, gesturing toward his office lined with photos of him, at different times, with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

“Clinical depression is a mental illness that can put a black mark on your personality. Some people today still feel it is a mistake to talk about it publicly,” said Roussin, 67.

His insights highlight a major dilemma for North American clergy, who often feel they cannot publicly disclose their struggles with psychological problems or mental illness.

“Some people feel it hurts the church’s reputation and reduces me to a weak human being,” said the archbishop, who believes his depression was brought on by the stress and insecurity he felt in increasingly demanding duties. But he is determined not to give in to the stigma surrounding the disease.

Psychotherapists welcome Roussin’s bravery in going public, but wish what he did could just be seen as normal.

“The only way things change is for people to take a risk,” said Vancouver therapist Deborrah Dunne. “But I don’t think it should be radical for clergy to say they need help.”

Church hierarchies are known for “creating loneliness, stress and very strong expectations to perform” among high-level clergy, said Brian Klassen, a therapist in Langley, B.C., whose clientele largely consists of conservative Christians.

“A clergyperson often has no one to go to if they’re having problems, except their bosses, and that won’t feel safe. There can also be a sense among Christians that they’re better than other people, so they can’t get depressed or suffer mental illness. They think, ‘We will be victorious; God will somehow take care of everything.'”

In February, Roussin gained international headlines when he threatened a boycott unless cell phone giant Telus Mobility stopped plans to sell erotic images on cell phones; the company backed down.

That public scuffle added to a dramatic coming-out-of-the-depression-closet for Roussin, who had never wanted to be in the spotlight in the first place, especially through the media.

When his depression first struck almost two years ago, Roussin found it dangerously exaggerated his already introverted nature. “It made me want to pull away completely from the world,” he said, speaking in a soft voice that occasionally descended to a whisper.

And despite the emotional, physical and spiritual strength he’s developed in the past months, Roussin said some memory problems associated with the disease persist. He continues to take medication, particularly for stress.

He also has an undiagnosed — and probably unrelated — tremor in his fingers, which makes it difficult to write notes or type on a keyboard. Combined with his quiet voice, it can create an aura of fragility about him.

Klassen, the therapist, says he admires Roussin for not pretending he’s completely recovered from his battle with depression. “Christians like to hear success stories. They want to hear, ‘I once was sick, but now I’m OK.’ But Archbishop Roussin is willing to show he’s still feeling vulnerable.”

Clergy are the kind of professional caregivers who often end up depressed, adds Dunne. “Most depressives give more than they receive. They’re suffering from depression because they’re insufficiently nourished in their self. It’s a message they’re not balanced.”

During his recovery, Roussin has found comfort in the writings of the late Catholic spiritual director Henri Nouwen. Nouwen’s book, “The Wounded Healer,” describes how suffering, vulnerable people–like Jesus–are ideally suited for supporting others who are struggling.

“‘The Wounded Healer‘ helped me recognize it isn’t the power of the world that really counts in being a success,” Roussin said. “The powerful — whether in business, in school or in sports — only seem to win. But it’s not really the case in the long run. The wounded healer is the one who is able to reach out to more and more people.”

When Roussin’s darkness set in, he feared he had “lost everything.” He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. His 5-foot-5-inch frame shrank to 119 pounds.

After admitting to people he was in distress, Roussin took about five months off to slow down and recuperate at a health and retreat center in New York.

Today, about a year after beginning a phased-in return to his archbishop’s duties, Roussin is again busy with church work, and feeling physically strong.

He goes for a 45-minute walk each morning. And he’s pumping iron at a gym twice each week. “I weigh 140 pounds, and it’s all muscle, literally,” he says, amazed at his own fitness.

For those wondering if the archbishop’s depression was caused by a loss of Christian faith, he says it’s not so.

“I didn’t come to the point of despair. Despair would be a sense there’s no hope. Some days it felt like no hope, but I knew it was there despite the hell I was going through. There was faith in the darkness.

“There’s just something there,” Roussin said, softly pounding his fist on his chest, “in the raw heart, that says ‘I believe.'”

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