Christianity and Mental Illness

Much of the Christian world is in mourning with the news of Pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, ending his life this weekend. I’ve read many, many, many beautiful reflections and touching tributes for the Warren family. Yet as I read more about Matthew’s story today, a terrifying thought crossed my mind:

That could have been me. 

Many years ago (a little over ten now), I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and severe depression.  As a sixteen year old girl desiring just to be normal, I was crushed. The news came after months and months of wallowing in confusion, like I was living an endless nightmare. OCD has only recently been known in our culture thanks to the popularization of the disorder through VH1 psychologists or quirky comedies on USA (I really do like that show by the way). But in my life, OCD took a different turn.

Known as “pure obsessional” OCD, I never suffered the pain of hand washing, having to touch all the outlets in the house or extreme hoarding.  Every aspect of my illness was interior. Endless images or irrational thoughts circled my mind daily.  There were rare moments where I could objectively step outside of myself, recognize how silly all of this was, and just breathe…only to be quickly immersed in a pool of doubt and confusion. Typical happy memories for a 16 year old girl were only followed by many, many, many hours of crying and non-sleeping. I was on homecoming court my junior year of high school, but all I could remember was being terrified of breaking down while I walked out on the football field at halftime. The once happy, carefree girl lived in a shell of despair. I believed in Jesus and loved my faith, so the suffering was even more confusing: why would God allow so much pain in my life? Haven’t i been faithful?

After months of sorrow, my really wonderful parents came to me devastated. Dad cried, wrote letters, told me he felt so helpless; mom cried, checked on me constantly, called friends to see if they knew what was happening. They begged me to go get some help–see a therapist—but I refused. 16 year old girls in the suburbs didn’t see therapists; only middle-aged divorcees or people who talked to ghosts needed therapists.  But after one night of endless panic attacks and crying, my parents offered me an ultimatum: emergency room or therapist. Figuring it would be easier to hide therapy than a hospital visit to my friends and sweet high school boyfriend, I reluctantly went in the next day.

The strange thing is the moment I stepped in my therapist’s office, I immediately felt better. The words of all of my thoughts and confusions of the past 5 months just poured out of me. After what seemed like hours of talking my sweet therapist smiled, went to the shelf and took out a book. She sat down and calmly said “You’re not crazy; I know what this is.” She handed me the book and told me to turn to a certain page and just read. Every symptom I read seemed to pierce my heart. FINALLY; someone is explaining what is happening.

For those who have never battled with mental disorder or had someone close who has, diagnosis is only the beginning. What happened next were years of struggle trying to train my brain to not believe the irrational thoughts or panic every time a terrifying image would appear in my mind. And OCD never really goes away…in our community we talk of “spikes,” or times in our life when OCD symptoms reappear, sometimes worse than they had before. I am more prone to worry and self-doubt than anyone with a “normal” brain would understand (my husband is a saint), and there have been various bouts of depression in the post-diagnosis era.  But overall, I am lucky. I had parents (like the Warrens) who knew they couldn’t try to figure this out themselves or just “pray away” the devastation. They knew we needed professional (secular!) help.

Of the many articles and blog posts I’ve read about the Warrens, one of the most surprisingly beautiful came from a popular atheist blogger Hermant Mehta. In this post, he very beautifully applauds the Warrens for doing everything they could; the Warrens, unlike a lot of Christians, didn’t shy away from secular psychology.  In fact, they embraced it. Even in the midst of their prayers, they knew God had enabled others to better help their son. The most devastating thing, however, is many Christians don’t view it this way. Mehta quotes an article in the Christian post that explains this position well:

“Why do Christians feel a need to seek the advice or help of another person, when Christ should be all that we need? We don’t need psychiatrists to fix us or depression medication to relieve us. There is deliverance in the Word of God. There is breakthrough in the Word of God. There is healing in the Word of God. Every situation that we endure, there is a word for us. To seek out these other methods is to not trust God.

I am SO GRATEFUL that my parents (and good friends) didn’t have this mentality; I might not be here today if they did. It’s not that I don’t believe the statement above (at least the part proclaiming “there is healing in the Word of God,”) but I also believe there is healing OUTSIDE of His Church. That God in fact enables non-Christians with the tools to help those of us in need. We mustn’t over-spiritualize the basic fact that medical disorders require medical attention.

And so we come to the point of this article: why aren’t we doing more in the Christian community to reach out to those with mental illness? In fact, there are two ways I think we have actually hurt those suffering with mental disorders in our faith communities:

1. (Popular) Christian rhetoric of suffering

I use “popular” in the title because the actual Christian teaching on suffering is VERY DIFFERENT than how we mistakenly talk about it in our communities. Suffering–in any form–has simply become a talking point for “God’s will” in our lives.

Let me explain with an example. In the past two years, I have had many girlfriends lose a little one to miscarriage. With the best of intentions, many in the Christian community try to comfort these women (I’m sure I’ve done this as well) with statements about a “new intercessor in heaven” or “your child was just too perfect to be on this earth.” Now I believe both of these, I really do, and to some of my friends these phrases provided comfort. For others, however, these statements only made them angry. “Why would God create a child just to have him die in my body? I don’t want another intercessor; I want to hold a baby in my arms now.”

Can you blame them for their anger? The statements, though well-intentioned, make it seem like the only purpose for their baby was to die and be a prayer warrior, as if God desired the miscarriage in their lives. This, of course, is NOT the case.

We talk about suffering like this ALL THE TIME. It was “God’s will” that I got cancer; that my best friend died in a car accident; that I have OCD. This is, in fact, what I was told by some as a young girl, and it made my journey to healing all the more difficult. What a creepy, creepy understanding of God. That is certainly no God I would worship, and that is CERTAINLY not the Christian God I have come to know and love.

The bottom line is a very long time ago, evil entered the world, and since then (quite literally) all hell has broken loose. And we forget it is not just personal sin that entered the world. DISORDER in nature (within our human bodies, within the animal kingdom, within the natural realm itself) entered as well. God doesn’t desire our suffering; but He permits it, and promises to fight like crazy to help us heal and find peace in His grace. In the same way as a parent, I can’t guard my child from each suffering he encounters. One day, when Ryan and I teach little Leo to ride a bike, even with all the training and safety preparation, we will eventually have to let him go, knowing the probability of his inevitable fall. Do I WANT him to suffer and fall? No, of course not- I would line the streets with foam padding if it were up to me–but I know that it’s a part of life that will allow him to grow, develop courage and hopefully be better.

It is the same with our suffering, particularly those of us suffering with mental disorder.  We need to stop talking about suffering as if it is God behind it all, as if He’s just trying to test our faithfulness. No, we must embark on the messiness of life knowing that God is there to help us heal and pick up the pieces. And guess what: He gives us some tools to help us along the way! Which brings me to my second point:

2. Christians have shied away from secular psychology for LONG ENOUGH.

When Ryan and I were engaged and realized we would be settling in Colorado, we decided to look into some medical practioners as a couple. Eventually, the topic came up about my OCD. Due to the stress of wedding planning and a big life change (which is incredibly hard on OCDers), Ryan knew I should probably find someone good to talk to. The problem, of course, was we didn’t know where to start in the Denver area. So we sought the advice of our dear bishop, Archbishop Chaput, who was in Denver at the time and a long time friend of my husband’s. But when Ryan wrote the email asking for some possible recommendations, I gave Ryan two stipulations: the person must be a Catholic (to better understand my worldview) and the MUST BE SECULARLY TRAINED.

Listen, if I wanted to see a spiritual counselor (or director), I would have ample priests, religious and lay friends to turn to. But this is different. I knew (because of my past) that I needed a professional in matters of the mind. We Christians do this in other areas of our life, I have NO IDEA why it’s so hard to embrace this concept when it comes to mental illness. If I have cancer, I will go see an oncologist, not an exorcist. And I believe in miracles; I have encountered far too many to not, but I also know that God gives human beings the tools to treat these issues through natural means. Goodness gracious, this is the Catholic tradition afterall–where would we be without the wisdom of the great Greek philosophers (most of which were pagan!) And guess what? Archbishop Chaput AGREED, and passed on the name of an incredible woman with degrees from some of the best secular universities in this country (who also happened to be incredibly prayerful.)

And so we come to this discussion in our world, which seems to keep popping up in these past 6 months: we must talk openly, honestly, and compassionately about mental illness. Churches (pastors, ministers, etc) need to take note of Archbishop Chaput’s example and have a list of trained psychologists in their parish and area to assist when parishoners are in need. We need to be more honest about what to do next for those with mental disorders instead of trying to figure out “why” this suffering is going on in the first place. And we need to train good Catholics in the realm of GOOD PSYCHOLOGY. I do believe that the Catholic worldview presents the correct version of the human person (beginning, of course, that we are all made in God’s image). But we must also learn to incorporate the best of the secular psychological world in our techniques as well. Only then can we better help the Matthew Warrens (and Jules Miles) of the world.

PS. there are many institutions who are in fact doing this–and doing this incredibly well. One of my favorites is this place, just fyi 🙂

3 thoughts on “Christianity and Mental Illness

  1. Hi Julianne,
    First of all, thank you for your openness and candor in addressing this issue. You express so beautifully your own experience and then make it practical for others to learn from. As the Admissions Director at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, I also want to stress how grateful I am for your words. We’re working so hard to build our program and form more students to get out there and bring healing to so many people in need, so your endorsement means a great deal. I will add you as a special intention to our campus prayer list tomorrow. God bless, Anne-Marie Minnis

    • Hi Anne-Marie! What a blessing to hear from you, I have heard simply incredible things about your program (primarily through friends who have studied with you!) Thank you for the prayers, and please know of mine as well!

      • Hi Julianne,
        Thanks for your reponse. Here at IPS we appreciate all the good press we can get; as such a new, small school it’s taking time to spread the word to students who might be interested in coming here. Our students and grads are doing an incredible job out there bringing hope and healing to so many. Thanks for the prayers! Anne-Marie

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