Catholics and Mental Illness: Are We Doing Enough?

Research tends to show that Christians–especially pastors– struggle to know how to support those struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.  Catholics tend to fare a little better than evangelicals in this regard (because we tend to be less suspicious of psychotherapy), but it tends to be a mixed bag.

Last week, I asked readers who were struggling with depression, anxiety, or other emotional issues to share their experiences with receiving support from the Church and I want to offer my thanks to all who’ve written so far.    One person’s email really stood out.  I asked her permission to share her thoughts with you anonymously.  Here are her reflections.

I saw your post on your blog about seeking help in the Church when you have a mental illness. I have been a Catholic since 2006 and in 2011 was diagnosed with OCD. A new confessor who had heard about 4 of my confessions sent me to a psychiatrist because we were well into major scruples. He is now my spiritual director and main confessor. He has been incredibly supportive in making sure I got help (psychiatrist + therapist) and keeping me going in terms of scruples (such as only allowing me one confession a month vs. every two weeks, telling me to receive Holy Eucharist if I’m “not sure” if I’m in a state of grace, etc). 

I have had priests at other parishes in the past say “you sound as if you have OCD” but always in that flippant way. My SD had said “you sound as if you have OCD and I want you to go to a psychiatrist ASAP.” 

My parish as a whole has awareness of mental illness, one of our Lenten service projects this year is for the local chapter of NAMI. Each year the parish has a group that participates in the NAMI Walk, which our Monsignor participates in (I believe). 

 Catholics “in the pews” tend to be very silent about mental illness and at times it is awkward. I have told a few people about my OCD and have had mostly ‘brush-off’ reactions or a frustration when I get caught up in compulsions. I think there is a lot ignorance in the pews, with the standard “you need more faith/prayer/etc” or ‘I thought good Catholics didn’t get depressed.’ (yes, I’ve heard that which blows my mind!). I have had to drop out of a mother’s prayer group because of OCD and have felt as if the group appreciates that I’m gone. The people who I had counted on for support have done the exact opposite. Thus I feel as if I can’t ever tell more people as the majority act as if I’m contagious or “not faithful enough”.

 All the priests at my parish know of my OCD and are incredibly supportive, cheering me on as I work my way through therapy. The people in the pews, not so much.


What is your experience of being a Catholic struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental/emotional health challenges?  Write me at

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit

  • Christina

    I once heard an excellent talk given by a Catholic psychologist who, talking about the importance of seeking help with things like depression, said that refusing to do so could possibly be sinful. He explained that depression is both mental and physical, and to refuse treatment for a physical ailment is neglect of the stewardship we have over our bodies.

    That said, there are a lot of pew sitters who actively judge people who suffer from any emotional or mental illness. I’ve heard otherwise highly intelligent people claim that Tourettes and ADHD do not exist, or that people with Aspergers are stupid. As a person with depression, I’ve been told by people, both Catholic and Protestant, that taking medicine shows a lack of trust in God to heal me.

    I believe our clergy and our attitudes as a Church (teachings and writings) are more supportive of people with mental illness than the general population is, but I sometimes wish that they would educate the laity on the subject.

  • Joanne

    “that taking medicine shows a lack of trust in God to heal me.”

    I’ve had lifelong problems with depression and anxiety. The impression I often get is that religious people believe that if one has anxiety, one simply doesn’t have enough faith. After all, we’re not supposed to have anxiety about anything, but simply faith in God. As far as I’m concerned, however, the two (anxiety and faith in God) are not mutually exclusive. Depression and anxiety are organic disorders of the brain; unless God sees fit to grant us a faith healing, we will continue to have D+A, regardless of how deep our faith is. The misinformation among religious people vis-a-vis mental illness has been a real source of discouragement for me. A few years ago, I discontinued my subscription to a very well known Catholic publication because I found their reporting on mental illness to be almost dangerously ignorant. Just for everyone’s information, I’m a nurse and my impression is NOT that doctors “dole out” anti-depressants in a cavalier manner. In fact, I wish more people were on ADs and anti anxiety medications and in therapy – we’d probably have alot fewer people with substance abuse and obesity issues. Ironically, MDs prescribe countless blood pressure and diabetes meds – doctors probably actually could prescribe fewer of these if people took better care of themselves, but for some reason, religious people never seem to have any complaints about these meds being prescribed.

    Everyone should pray. We should pray to praise God and to thank Him and to show trust in him. And I believe that spirituality has beneficial effects on mental and probably even physical health. However, one cannot pray one’s self out of mental illness anymore than one can pray one’s self out of Parkinsons, arthritis, pancreatitis, or gout.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I struggled growing up. I was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s (now High Functioning Autism in the DSM-V) at age 30 and a lot of my history suddenly made sense- as well as finding new ways to inform my conscience about Church Teaching inspired by that discovery. In addition, I’ve joined Knights of Columbus as a way of learning to overcome my social anxiety, and have largely been successful (On April 16 I celebrate 1 year from the charter of my council as Grand Knight, a council that would not exist if it wasn’t for my autistic persistence in getting men to join).

    Because of my autism, during my college years I had strayed greatly into atheism, hedonism, and Zen Buddhism. I strayed because church teaching in the areas of my sins was simply not concrete enough to inform me of the truth behind the teachings.

    I’d like to say that catechisis was the cure, but my catechisis in the 1970s was so bad that as late as 2003 I was struggling with the humanity of illegal immigrants and bankers.

    I still struggle with neurotypicals getting overly emotional around me, though I no longer react to that with the sinful levels of wrath that I once did.

    Life is getting better, but yes, we need more awareness with how to deal with the mentally ill in our midst.

  • Marye

    There’s all sorts of misformation about mental illness out there, although it’s expressed differently. A misinformed Catholic may tell someone that they should pray more rather than take medication, or that more reliance on the Sacraments will overcome their panic attacks, while a misformed secularist may tell someone that they should use their willpower to overcome anxiety, or that they can reason their way out of depression. (I’ve heard all of the above.) All of it is based on the same lack of knowledge and understanding. Based on my own experience, I believe it’s not necessary for a Catholic to have a therapist (or psychiatrist) who is also Catholic, or who is knowledgeable about Catholicism. But it IS necessary to have a therapist who respects and understands the role of faith and religious belief, and who, ideally, has lived within a strong religious tradition. (My therapist is Jewish.)

  • midwestlady

    Question: What is the basic mission of the Catholic Church?

    • Dr. Greg

      I would have to say that it is to win souls for Jesus Christ and build God’s Kingdom on Earth. What made you ask–especially in this thread?

      • midwestlady

        What does it mean to “build God’s kingdom on Earth?”

        • Dr. Greg

          I am a little concerned with hijacking an important and sensitive thread with a tangential conversation so I won’t be able to continue the discussion beyond this exchange unless you can answer my questions above; namely, “What prompts your question and how does it relate to this thread?”

          That said, I would argue that, “to build God’s Kingdom” means “to work to create a world that reflects the innate, God-given, dignity and worth of every human being.”

          Each person is created in the image and likeness of God. It is the Church’s responsibility to remind everyone–believer or not–through its works and words, that each human being is a unique and unrepeatable person who has a God-given right to be treated only with love and can only become who they truly are by dedicating themselves to loving others. In light of this, it is the Church’s mission to proclaim and model a unique and authentic vision of love that springs from God’s own heart; a vision of love the protects the dignity of each person, promotes the life and health of each person, encourages relationships rooted in mutual self-giving, and strives to create a civilization that supports the fulfillment of each person. By doing so, ultimately the Church helps each individual fulfill their destiny, which is a total, loving union with God.

          I appreciate your interest in the Church’s mission. I hope you’ll answer the above so that I can have a better understanding of what you’re asking and why. Thank you for your comments.

          • Theodore Seeber

            midwestlady is a Bible-believing Protestant who has hijacked other threads in Catholic Patheos. I’m willing to bet she never even considered “Building the Kingdom of God on Earth” to be something so concrete or literal.

            As such, she’s likely coming from an interpretation where her questions are relevant to the topic. I too hope she responds to let us know what that interpretation of scripture is.

  • Janis R.

    I am a Catholic with AD/HD. I also work in special education in the public schools. From my perspective I think most Americans have a suspicious attitude towards mental illness. However, in the culture at large there may be more pockets of those who are compassionate and open towards those diagnosed with a disorder. I think that lay Catholics in general mistrust psychology and view it as a way for people to avoid responsibility for my actions.

    The most supportive people in my life, in terms of disclosing the fact that I have AD/HD, have been non-Catholics. That is my experience. I really haven’t come across any Catholic that hasn’t been made uncomfortable when I mention that I have AD/HD. In all honesty, I try to tell people about the fact that I have AD/HD in order to avoid misunderstandings and to let them know that I am working on myself and taking responsibility but they often see it as the opposite. I had one Catholic friend who tried to tell me that I didn’t have AD/HD despite the fact that I struggled with social anxiety, depression and underachievement for years. I have stopped talking about it in general but it feels very isolating to not be able to share something that is a really big part of my life right now. I was actually excited to find out because it explained so much, help me reach greater acceptance and move beyond self-loathing. But in the end America has a love affair with accountability and I don’t share my insights with AD/HD unless they are not Catholic and they have some openness towards understanding to mental illness.

  • Christina

    As it relates to this subject, spreading the kingdom of God includes treating others as we would want to be treated: kindly. That includes those who suffer with mental illnesses. It also includes the realization that truth is truth. There isn’t “religious truth” and “secular truth” that contradict one another. If we honestly seek the truth for God, we must be open to informing our minds as well as our consciences, especially in areas where we have the potential to do good, or to help people who need help. Again, including those with mental illnesses.

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  • rob brown

    My 72-year-old mother-in-law (“Jane”) is a compulsive hoarder, as well as a diabetic with weight problems. She is a very active Catholic, often going to mass a couple times a week.

    Meanwhile, my father-in-law (“Joe”) has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and is in the fairly early stages of it. California took his drivers license away due to his diagnosis, so now he is dependent on Jane for most everything. The hoarding has become a huge problem, and Joe is an enabler.

    Jane is in denial about how serious a problem this is, as is Joe. She is embarrased to have anyone in the home, however.

    We are considering various options, including trying to bring in a social worker (ironically, Jane is a former social worker), or maybe seeking help from her church. I’d love to know if the church is a place to go for support. She lives in a smallish city, so there aren’t a huge number of resources close by.

    • Stephanie

      Have you seen the A&E show “Hoarders”? Whether you have or not, my point is that it seems like the assistance of a 3rd party can really help out in hoarding situations. A a professional organizer, a professional clean up crew, a counselor…it takes a team, and follow up therapy + weekly clutter maintenance seem to be absolute essentials to prevent relapse.

      What if you started by finding a professional organizer (see for referrals in your area) and let him or her run the show, instead of you? The organizer will be able to gently (or firmly, as need be) suggest what should be done, in what order.

      I *know* you know how serious this can be (or you wouldn’t have posted, right?) but just to encourage you to take action, let me share this:
      Your in-laws fit the exact description of the former neighbors of *my* in-laws. “Former” because they are now deceased. Her hoard of purchases blocked the entrance of the fire department when they arrived in response to a fire that he started while trying to cook something. In his dementia, he left the burner on and the home was consumed.

      If her embarrassment/pride is still an obstacle, then call the Dept. of Elderly Affairs in your area and ask what they’d recommend. Good luck & God bless!