Catholics and Mental Illness (An Ongoing Series): Michelle–A Woman with Depression Suffers Alienation in the Church

St. Dymphna, Patroness of the Mentally Ill, Pray for Us.

A new post in our “What’s Your Experience?” Series,  in which People-of-Faith share their experience of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness as they relate to their parish and their Catholic faith.  Today, Michelle writes of her experience with crippling depression.

Dr. Greg,  I was amazed when I came across a link for your article on Facebook because I have spent the past few days wondering about “What is my place in the Church?” as a mentally ill Catholic.

I have been thinking a lot about my mental illness lately. I used to be mentally healthy but then I joined the military where I suffered repeated sexual harassment and assault, as well as the expected traumas of serving in a war zone. I left the military and was given a 100% disability rating by the Department of Veterans Affairs for PTSD, Major Depression Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. So as far as I know I was not born with a chemical imbalance but instead my mental illness is the result of trauma.

I left the US Navy in 1996 and was given my disability rating in 1998. I have suffered for 15 years with crippling depression and also with oftentimes relentless panic attacks and severe bouts of paranoia/agoraphobia. In short, I can be ok to a certain degree or I can be a total human wreck. But no matter what, I am “weird” and this is not lost on basically anyone that is either my friend or is in my company for whatever reason.

Lately I have been having very serious thoughts about myself. I wonder how much of my depression is the result of what I call “negative narcissism” on my part: being so self-centered that I am shocked and driven to a huge “poor me, life sucks” reaction when life is stressful, life is challenging, and/or things don’t go my way.

I also wonder how much of my mental illness is self-fulfilling prophecy, due to being told that I am mentally ill to the point that I no longer trust my ability to “handle stress.” In other words, at the first real sign of stress I run away, disconnecting and dissociating by abandoning my daily life and tasks and hiding in bed, hiding behind the Internet (distracting myself) and taking off for a walk with my iPod while abandoning my duties.

These personal musings have come about after these past two or three years spent moving deeper and deeper into the Catholic Faith. To my shock I feel that I have discovered something incredible, and possibly something that will prove to be the key to serious improvements in my mental health: modern psychology offers me exactly what the Faith and the Bible have taught all along. Not only that, but the Faith and Bible offer *even more*.

So at the present moment I find myself deeply questioning my own reactions to stress. I find myself comparing my  thoughts and feelings, my behaviors and my reactions against what the Faith teaches is the Christian way of life. I must admit that I find myself seriously lacking in many areas – and I am not saying this with self hate or scruples. I am seeking instead the truth, because although painful to my pride, the truth just might set me free. I doubt that my PTSD can ever be fully cured, but I am beginning to wonder if my depression and the emotional hyper-sensitivity of Borderline Personality Disorder are more the results of a life centered around Me and not Christ. I hope and pray that God will provide me with the tools (and people?) that I need to dig deeply into this idea.

Sadly I have found that the vast majority of those in the Church react to my “weirdness” with the same lack of compassion and understanding as those in the secular world. Sometimes even to the point of cruelty and aggressively destroying me socially via gossip: meaning that some people that get to know me within the Church will actually go out of their way to telephone and visit other people in order to gossip about me and ruin my reputation to the point of me being ostracized by church members, family, and many in the local community. Being socially destroyed by fellow Catholics is shocking to say the least. I am a convert, becoming Catholic in 1998. I did not expect to find the same injustices from fellow Catholics that one practically expects from those that reject Christ.

As for the rest of my fellow Catholics I am mostly met with inertia. In the moments when I am suffering the most there is an obvious need but no one is interested. They’d rather watch TV and they don’t want to be bothered with making the effort to connect and communicate, pray, etc.

I will do my best to answer your questions:

Was your pastor supportive?  

No, I have never encountered a fully supportive pastor. I think some of the problem is some are not interested, others dismiss mental illness, they find you annoying and a drain. Perhaps another part of the problem is that some pastors understand the “negative narcissism” I mention above and they expect that you will “get it” a lot faster then you actually do.

Were the people in your parish or bible study or women’s group understanding?  

Anything but. Even amongst fellow Catholics there is a Status Quo. If you are not able to engage in full time employment, your house is a wreck, you can’t drive, or any other “failing” due to the usual disruptions to life brought about by mental illness these are held against you. And this Status Quo extends even to your personal appearance: weight, style of clothes, ethnicity ~ add to that any cultural differences and it gets even more impossible to meet expectations. Being mentally ill, especially when you find yourself in the midst of a time of real mental struggle, helps you to fail to meet the expectations of the Status Quo. Oftentimes this Status Quo mimics that of the secular world, with its shallow judgmentalism and lack of compassion and patience and the desire to “get something in return” from any given relationship. No one can escape the fact that when you are in the midst of a mental crisis you take a LOT and give very little. It requires a seriously Christ-like heart to continue to love and support a mentally ill person during their particularly dark moments. 

Overall, how good a job has the Church done of attending to your needs? 

Awful. I have found, after being a member of multiple parishes across the USA and overseas, that if you are mentally ill you end up on your own. Your pastors are always “too busy” helping other people. Your fellow Catholics have a tendency to either outright reject you, or basically ignore you and leave you wallowing in the fallout caused by episodes of mental crisis. On the other hand Protestants are AMAZING. They not only love you and support you even at your worst, they are so Christlike in their lack of judgement and in their service. Christ washed the feet of His disciples, Protestants scrub your toilet and cook your meals and help you to remember to bathe and assist you with keeping up with daily tasks while you are at your absolute worst. Protestants will pray with you, read the bible with you (even when all you can do is sit there, stinking, hair wild, eyes glazed, and listen) and will take you to-and-from their homes, their churches, anything that is needed. By contrast your fellow Catholics don’t even pick up the phone and give you a call. I feel that the majority of my fellow Catholics react more like Secular people that don’t know Christ: as soon as you are an inconvenience, a burden, they abandon you. Even the Priests fail to call you or visit you or minister to you, and they do nothing to ask the parish to reach out to you. Holy Mother Church herself… I’ve never been offered any kind of pastoral mental health help in any form ever. This abandonment by the Church is something that I am struggling to come to terms with so that I can stop allowing this rejection and abandonment to throw me into a poor-me party. Far more then once I have been severely tempted to abandon the Church and join a Protestant church instead. 

I hope this helps! I have to go now, time to do something productive. I am testing my “how much is my depression  actually self-fulfillment” by trying to force myself to do at least one daily task from beginning to end. Have I become lazy due to self-fulfilling prophecy? Or am I truly incapacitated when a depression wave hits?

God bless!!  ~Michelle

Do you have a story of a struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental/emotional illness?  What has your experience in the Church been like?   Share your story to help others.  I promise anonymity.  Please email me at gpopcak@CatholicCounselors.com

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 www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • D

    Michelle said: As for the rest of my fellow Catholics I am mostly met with inertia. In the moments when I am suffering the most there is an obvious need but no one is interested. They’d rather watch TV and they don’t want to be bothered with making the effort to connect and communicate, pray, etc.
    — As a sister in Christ who suffers through depression that cycles from a relatively benign dysthymia to full-blown Bottom of The Pit despondency, I understand what you are saying here. I have experienced this over and over again. For years I struggled with confusion regarding this typical reaction by others. My confusion took this form: If we are truly the Body of Christ, and my fellow Catholic Christians are unwilling or unable to support me in my illness, where, then, will I see the Face of Christ in my struggle? Perhaps it wasn’t as black and white as I tried to frame it, but when my brain was foggy and not reading reality correctly, I had to simplify things as best I could. I came to two conclusions: first, most people, in general, don’t understand what happens in a person’s brain when they are mentally ill, and therefore they are ill-equipped to know the “right” things to say or do to be of help, even if in their heart they might want to. I likened it to the difficulty most people experience when they try to express sympathy to those who have lost a loved one. Second, I had unreasonably high expectations about another person’s ability to assist me, to simply be with me, through my struggles. The mood disorder I have doesn’t exactly bring out the best in my personality, and I know it’s extremely difficult to be around me when I’m on the bottom of the pit. Receiving unconditional love at that time, when my heart needs it most, is quite rare, and a true gift from God — one that, when I do receive it, I strive to express gratitude for.
    Praying that you, and I, and all who suffer mental and emotional illness, receive a healing balm from God today.

    • michelletherese

      Amen :-)

  • Kim

    What a wonderful series! I also suffer from major depression, and am a Catholic convert. One thing that I have discovered is that Satan LOVES mental illness. He knows where our thinking and emotions are weak and knows exactly where to twist his knife. I am always tempted by pride – that my depression makes me so different than others and more sensitive. Satan is always whispering lies in my ear and I have to fight despair on a daily basis. It is a cross to bear. I try to enter Gethsemene with our Lord and His agony, and I am no longer alone.

  • Irksome1

    I think, left unaddressed by the writer, is the sheer volume of things that the lay people expect from their priests. It stands to reason, from a priest’s point of view, not to allow himself to become emotionally entangled with any of his parishioners. After all, not only must the priest keep his schedule of obligations and minister to other families in the parish (at my church, over 2,800 of them), he also doesn’t know when he may be reassigned and therefore unable to provide a mentally ill parishioner the kind of help he or she needs.

    Lest I be accused of only laying blame at the feet of the writer, I think it’s fairly obvious that the other Catholics the writer has tried to interact with are operating on the same assumption; they figure the kind of support most needed by such a person is best provided by a priest or other professional.

    Protestants tend to be amazing at that kind of thing because their theology encourages a self-directed approach to ills. I know that in my life, even the secular friends I’ve made have been of more help to me than those in my church.

    • michelletherese

      Well, no one can doubt that it is not difficult for any Priest, no matter how busy, can find the time to encourage the parish to reach out to those in the parish that are in need. Regardless of the need. A Priest cannot be expected to bear the entire load. But it does not take much time or effort to inform the parish of any families or individuals in need. Personally I am fed up with hearing about how our Priests are “too busy.” Everyone is busy. Very busy. But Christ did not leave a condition that we only have to “love one another as I have loved you… when you have some free time.”

      Which begs the question, what kind of witness are we providing as a Church when our fellow Catholics abandon us and, as has always been the case, the non-Catholic Christians pick up the slack? So far in my 15 years as a Catholic I’ve been loved by Mormons, Protestants, Muslims, and now it is the Jehovah’s Witnesses that read the bible and pray with me each week.

      When the Mormons come 100 miles from Boston to sit by your side as you mourn your dead mother and the local Catholic Priest 50 yards down the road merely says, “Oh, good!” (that your mom is no longer suffering) as he shakes your hand and moves on to the next parishioner exiting mass… and the only communication you receive from the parish is a stack of tithing envelopes in the mail… how do you explain to non-Catholics that we are the one true Church established by Christ? Where is the visible proof of the love of Christ?

      When a young Mennonite woman flies overseas to live in your home for several months so that she can help this wheelchair-bound mother with her newborn twins and toddler… and you have two parishes full of healthy and physically capable Catholics that act like you don’t exist, how do you counter the arguments that the Catholic Church is *not* the church established by Christ? This all goes much further then the abandonment of mentally ill Catholics. It is an abandonment of Catholics that are inconvenient – and how much does this hinder mentally ill people from experiencing less mental distress? This is an honest question.

      (I will never leave the Church but these various non-Catholics aren’t exactly pleased with the way Catholics abandon Catholics. Why would they join us?) We Catholics are urged to evangelize… but how? When you are hungry or alone, mourning or ill, and your own Church ignores you, how is this going to convert hearts to the Faith? If anything people are repelled.

      Also, it does not take a Priest or a professional to simply call someone on the phone and pray with them, or to come to their home and fellowship with them as a brother or sister in Christ, or read the bible with them. I mean, if more Catholics actually “fellowshipped” with fellow Catholics I bet a large degree of suffering would be minimized. I am sure that abandonment by people who are supposed to treat you as an equal will make even a 100% mentally healthy person depressed. How much more so a Catholic that struggles already with mental illness? Did Christ avoid the sick and the disabled? Did He only love those that were easy to love?

      Protestants are amazing because, to put it bluntly, they are busy loving each other rather then finding 101 excuses to pass the buck because they don’t want to be bothered. Catholic theology teaches the exact same, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” There is no excuse for the incredible difference in the way that Catholics and Protestants relate to their fellow church members, and especially those brothers and sisters in Christ that carry the cross of illness.

      • ceubleu

        I can relate to this story somehow, and before I start, I just want to say that English is my second language and I hope I choose the right words to express the right idea. About 4 years ago I was diagnosed with MDD, before I knew about this, I just thought I was very depressed, I also seek for help and comfort at church (I’m also Catholic) the priest was busy, as you said, they wanted to give me an appointment in two months! (that is eternity for people with MDD) I felt the exact same way at the beginning, as you did, but my experience over the years has not been as bad as you described it.
        I was directed to Catholic Charities where I received FREE COUNSELING, that helped tons! One of the priests was busy but I did find help and support from the deacon and another priest that dedicated time for me twice a week and heard me crying, complaining, etc. and gave me support!
        I also received help from Mormons and Protestants but they only helped me until they asked the obvious question: WHEN I WAS GOING TO BE READY AND ACCEPT CHRIST? (CONVERT), after I told them that I was not ready and will not convert, they left. I really feel sorry because you didn’t find support, but please don’t generalize, not all the priests and Catholics will be busy. You can count on me, if you ever need to talk, (ceubleu@hotmail.com) I know what you go through, and I know is not easy and friends often tell me “just stop crying and be more positive, have faith, aren’t you a believer??” They don’t know that I don’t lack faith, that is exactly what keeps me going even though they see me crying.
        God bless you♥

  • Carrie

    Reading this series has been eye opening and disturbing for me. I personally don’t have a mental illness. I have dealt with a wide variety of personal and family problems that brought me to my knees though. I also am married to someone who doesn’t have an official diagnosis but clearly has some mental types of issues. I’ve read A TON of books about depression, marriage, verbal abuse, and more. I receive regular counseling to help me work through all of the relationship issues we have. Things are slowly improving but it takes a lot of time and work. What occurs to me, as I read these and hear people saying they feel abandoned by Catholic priests and parishioners, is do they all know what you need exactly and are they equipped to offer the type of support you need. I have no idea. It makes me wonder who is suffering at my church. It makes me wonder if there are people with mental illnesses that I don’t talk to because they act a certain way so I keep my distance. I haven’t been aware of this, but wonder if others see me as doing this somehow. Regardless this is all eye opening and is a good first step for me in improving in the area of loving my neighbor and seeing us all as one in the body of Christ. Thank you for sharing and I pray and hope everyone who posts does find peace and healing.

  • Theresa Rezac

    Michelle, Thank you for sharing. I, too, have found that my fellow Catholics do not reach out to those who are struggling. My son has serious depression for several years. Many people knew he suffered with it, including our pastor, but no support was found within our church. Like you I found more support and love and prayer from my protestant friends.


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