Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Faith Can’t Cure Mental Illness: Believers Struggling with Depression and Mood Disorders

Faith can't cure mental illness.jpgU.S. Catholic writer Anna Weaver penned a comprehensive, insightful, and useful article in last month’s issue of US Catholic magazine (where I actually worked as an editor … my first real job out of college). I was honored to be interviewed for the article, as well as Sister Nancy Kehoe, whom I featured the other week on Beyond Blue and Kathryn James Hermes, another familiar name to Beliefnet readers. I urge you all to read the story, as Anna succeeds at giving us a nuanced perspective of what churches are doing today to address mental illness, and what we can do to help them along.
Here are some favorite excerpts:
For many Catholics experiencing mental illness and their families, the church can be both a place of welcome and alienation. Just as society has struggled with how to deal with those with mental illness, U.S. parishes and dioceses have found the area equally challenging.
Many in Catholic mental illness advocacy agree with Chicago Deacon Tom Lambert when he says, “As a church we’re just beginning to address the issues on a church-wide and institutional level.”
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in four Americans has a mental disorder. Of those, one in 17 has a serious mental illness such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or borderline personality disorder.
To Portland, Oregon psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Welch, those large numbers mean that every Catholic is affected by mental illness in some way. “The people next to you in the pews may have a mental illness or have family [members] who have mental illness,” he says. “By virtue of Baptism, we’re all equal members of the church, and we need to be mindful of that.”


A real disability
Mental illness outreach within the Catholic Church has often emerged from other disabilities work.
Connie Rakitan, a member of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Commission on Mental Illness, is the founder of Faith and Fellowship, a support group for people with severe mental illness. She thinks there’s been a vast improvement in the “sensitivity and sophistication” of understanding mental illness, but that church outreach in that area has taken more time compared to the outreach to those dealing with physical disabilities.
“It is way easier to build a ramp than it is to deal with a person who comes to church talking to herself, which might be a manifestation of some of the more severe symptoms of mental illness,” she says. “I don’t think that the church is ready for that yet.”
Recent Baylor University studies reflect this attitude. A 2008 study showed that almost one-third of a group of 293 Christians who approached their various churches about mental illness were told that they or their family member didn’t really have a mental disorder. A 2009 Baylor survey of Texas Baptists found depression and anxiety were the maladies most often dismissed by clergy. Repeated studies have also shown that it is clergy to whom people most frequently turn when they are first in mental distress, not mental health professionals.
Baby steps
Outreach to those experiencing mental illness does not need to be as extensive as starting your own social service agency. Many within the church say that while the mentally ill often need a range of services-including access to medicine and counseling-churches can begin by simply making those with mental illness feel welcome.
“If only our parishes knew how simple it is to be the support that people just hunger for,” Dorothy Coughlin says. “For so many people with mental illness, what would be most therapeutic in their lives would be relationships and friendships.”
“To support a friend with cancer I don’t have to be an oncologist. To support a friend with mental illness, I don’t have to be a psychiatrist,” she adds.
Another refrain among Catholics involved in mental health outreach is that training, beginning at the seminary level, would go a long way toward helping awareness spread throughout the Catholic Church in this country.
“I’d say the majority of priests don’t understand what mental illness is about, and they can’t identify it when it comes to their door,” Salazar says.
Welch says he’s heard homilies in which priests referred to someone as crazy or as having a “Prozac moment” and other phrases that can be alienating to a person with mental illness.
Seminaries do pastoral training for areas like marriage and bereavement counseling but don’t get into “the big guns” of mental illness, Rakitan says. She’d like to see churches host support and outreach groups not only through NAMI and other outside organizations but on their own.
An example of that is in the Archdiocese of Portland, where Welch started a faith-sharing group with Dorothy Coughlin last year at St. Philip Neri Church. The group gathers to have dinner, go over readings, do reflections, and pray for those who were unable to come that week.
Coughlin remembers one man who came to the group last year before committing suicide. He always used to ask for a window to be opened at the meetings. “We still open the window, remembering him,” she says.
Click here to read the entire article.


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  • Robyn

    It is particularly difficult, when I am depressed, to wrap myself in my faith because the depression causes me to doubt my faith. It tricks me into believing that God doesn’t exist and those thoughts only make me more depressed.

  • Doreen

    I nearly cried when I just read that studies show that clergy is whom people most frequently turn to in mental distress…that was me. I have always felt the “church” as my second home. I had many issues I(marrying some who later came out as homosexual) had kids with him who later decided they wanted to live with their dad, and I went to my church. I was heart broken that the first priest I went to to set up an appointment with yelled at me and told me (over the phone) that is was NOT a counselor. The second priest, while I was crying, told me (waving his hands by his head like I was crazy)”said well you are all uh uh uh no wonder your kids don’t want to live with you. I really do think SOME priests need to be more sensitive. We are all God’s children and we need to show love and compassion to one another. I have suffered from depression for many years and just knowing some one cares is tremendous comfort.

  • Terri

    It is so sad that the church doesn’t use a 12 step program started by a catholic priest in Sydney, Australia in 1957.I was lucky enough to be in one of these support groups. It was called GROW The Program of Growth to Maturity. People with or without a mental health diagnosis, were in these groups and it was truly a life saver. It not only saved my life it changed it for the better.

  • Carolyn

    Several years ago when I was going through a divorce that I did not want, I was in a devistating mind set. Through many self helps (like divorce recovery) and Christian people in the church encourageing me, I was able to pull through this. It took years for me to let go of my past as I was very deeply in love with my husband and could not fantom that this love was not mutual. It took getting my eyes off of self and turning them to the Lord that made a change in my life. In some mental health problems it is a matter of determining in your own mind that you are going to recover in your situation. I realize that there are other more serious mental health problems for some people and they need lots of outside help, but there are those that can help themselves if they make that most important choice to do so.

  • Jo

    Faith can reveal causes for mental illness that may alleviate or remove some symptoms or make them more manageable. As in revealing or leading one to doctors, information, etc. or persons with information that reveal genetic neurological disorders, environmental causes, dietary causes, allergic causes, changes in area of living, anatomical damages, biological ills, etc. that will help one to a more stable life. Things like amount of light where one lives, weather, etc. can also contribute to better or worse mental situations. God reveals much and provides many with parts of info to help us! Faith leads us in a better direction all in God’s own time, of course. The Lord is our strength and God knows much more than we know, but reveals and provides many things. He also heals.

  • Artie

    If you believe in “Voodoo” than faith can indeed cure mental illness.

  • Minister King James not Labron James though

    Yes Faith in GOD can cure mental health issues because can heal anything that’s ment to be healed. You sitting here believing all what the psychologist say but fell to stay focus on the on the author and finisher or for those who don’t know what that mean God and even the Lord has told me that.

  • Your Name Aretha

    I read this article and found it to be an unapproachable article due to the fact the article was entitled “Can Faith Heal Mental Illness”. However, the article continually referred to Catholic. Faith is not limited to the Catholic denomination. I found myself n ot wanting to read the entire article due to the wording involved.

  • Your Name

    The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in four Americans has a mental disorder. Of those, one in 17 has a serious mental illness such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or borderline personality disorder. Here, we have just begun this journey, in helping our families, friends and coworkers with changing the healthcare system. I’m not calling it socialized medicine, because that isn’t the goal here. The goal is so every human being is entitled to medical care even though they have no money. My father in law was a doctor, and he told me before he died that he did plenty of free work for those who could not afford it. This makes an excellent doctor, in my opinion. He was a remarkable man, and is a hero in my eyes.

  • Josh

    I wonder if faith can heal bad grammar and illiteracy. If so, I wonder why some of the previous comments (on made on the 25th and the one after it on the 26th) are the way they are if the people writing them supposedly have so much faith.

  • Tara

    Don’t make fun of religion, Artie, when you believe in psychiatry. You people make me laugh. “I don’t believe in God. I believe in chemical imbalances. I go to a psychiatrist and take medication.” I hope you realize that your psychiatrist and the drug companies are having a good laugh over expensive champagne in their million dollar houses that you paid for.

  • hotels in tunez

    Disappear Science,terms help afterwards market insist united grey derive reform win provide simple replace request drug yourself industry introduce unless secure director module photograph long limited little steal lay since satisfy source no close release your judge contribution teach share contract support key write early climb suggest severe device investigate agree involve quickly line leaf vehicle neighbour fuel living wide circumstance sight border indeed many expense fill along household onto some next fit hour equal package married interested write wing seek arise arrive check parliament generally entire sound test legal

  • Melanie

    Josh, if there are people drinking champagne in million-dollar houses paid for by my $4-a-month generic Prozac, then so be it. I am thankful to God for the recovery of my mental health, which He chose to give me through the skill of a doctor.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Zack

    Faith is considered Mental Illness by the Psychiatrists. Either as a preoccupation with moral rules in OCD or as delusion or euphoria in Bipolar.

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