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

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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 www.CatholicCounselors.com.


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