GUEST POST: What I Want Christians to Know about Mental Illness

This guest post was written by a young Catholic man who asked that I publish it anonymously due to the personal nature of the subject.  I was happy to do so as mental illness affects so many families, including mine.

There has been a significant growth of awareness about mental illness in recent years, and I am grateful for it. As a Christian who suffers from mental illness, I want my fellow believers who may be unfamiliar with it to know a few things.

What is a mental illness?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these.)” Mental illness is common. The American Psychiatric Association also say that in any given year, 19% of U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, and 4.1% of Americans have a serious mental illness.

How does it work?

I’m not a doctor, but I like to explain the foundation of mental illness and the need for treatment by comparing it to physical illness, something almost everyone can relate to.

When a person experiences a physical illness, it essentially means that their body isn’t functioning the way it would when healthy. When a person has the flu, a very common physical illness, they have a viral infection of their respiratory tract. This infection causes symptoms, including fever, fatigue, and physical pain.

When a person experiences a mental illness, it means that their brain isn’t functioning the way it would when healthy. Mental illnesses often last for years or even a lifetime.

I want to address the most commonly referred to forms of mental illness: Depression, Anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, more commonly known as OCD. These terms are often used to describe everyday experiences and emotions that are not necessarily mental illnesses, which leads to confusion.

Depression

Depression is a commonly used term, and feeling depressed does not necessarily mean a person experiences mental illness. It is ordinary for a person to feel depressed and sad when life is hard.

Major Depressive Disorder, a mental illness, can cause people to feel depressed and sad when things in life are good. It alters the brain, causing chemical and hormonal imbalances that affect a person in negative ways.

When people suffer from Depression, the mental illness, they may experience sadness, hopelessness, and excessive feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Physically, they may experience restlessness, fatigue, or sleep in excess or lack. If left untreated, or if treatment is ineffective, it can lead to suicidal thoughts and inclinations.

Anxiety

As with depression, anxiety is a commonly used term and a widely experienced emotion. Feeling anxious does not necessarily mean that a person experiences mental illness.

There are several types of what are called anxiety disorders. Among them are Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses; the brain’s functioning is altered.

When a person has an anxiety disorder, their anxieties, or worries, are often persistent and irrational. A person may fixate on a specific thought or happening nonstop for hours or an entire day. These fixations can be so severe that they hinder a person’s ability to function.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCD is a term that is widely misused to describe someone who is a perfectionist or very detail-oriented. According to Mayo Clinic, OCD “features a pattern of unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions).”

They also say that “Ultimately, you feel driven to perform compulsive acts to try to ease your stress. Despite efforts to ignore or get rid of bothersome thoughts or urges, they keep coming back.”

Obsessive-compulsive disorder causes what is known as a vicious cycle where obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior beget only more obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Obsessions and compulsions can be physical, mental, or both. Individuals who suffer from OCD can experience obsessions such as repetitively washing hands, needing to re-check whether a door is locked, arranging physical items a certain way, or repeating specific thoughts or prayers for lengthy periods without respite.

How to and not to treat a Christian with mental illness

The Bible has a lot to say about worry and anxiety.

In Philippians 4:6, St. Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In Matthew 6:34, Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” 1 Peter 5:7 says about the Lord, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

These verses are easy to remember and share with others but may be of no solace to a person who experiences mental illness. Why is this?

When you suffer from mental illness, not worrying, not being anxious, and being happy can often be beyond your control, even with the help of medicine.

If I get provoked by criticism, a personal attack, or hearing bad news, I can literally think about such a thing for the rest of the day, making it take longer to go to sleep.

I know to my core that God loves me, but telling me not to worry, or to be joyful at times doesn’t help because it is simply something I’m often not able to control. Prominent Christian speakers have said things such as “there is no such thing as a sad Christian,” and “worry is practical atheism,” which I think are insensitive and untrue, especially when considering the experience of Christians with mental illness, and that those are common, natural emotions.

Never, ever, ever, criticize a person’s faith when they are struggling not to worry, or when they feel depressed and sad rather than joyful. I’m not less holy, less faithful, or less believing than anyone else if I don’t feel joyful or if I am overwhelmed by worry.

What should you do?

From my perspective, offering a listening ear, without telling people how to think, is the best thing a person can do to help. Suggestions may be welcome and helpful, but at times they may not be. Praying for them is essential and asking to pray with them when in-person can also be comforting.

Seeking treatment

Though miraculous healings occur, as with a physical illness, mental illnesses such as Depression and anxiety disorders are not problems that you can simply pray away: it requires treatment and stigma has no place in preventing someone from seeking it out.

If you know someone who shows signs of depression or an anxiety disorder, ask if they are seeing a counselor and taking medicine, and if they say no, encourage them to speak with their doctor and a licensed counselor. A psychiatrist can evaluate someone and determine if they have a mental illness, and then provide them with medication and refer them to a counselor. A counselor can provide practical ways that a person can cope with their thoughts and experiences, which when combined with medicine can make things much better.

Fighting Fear with Faith

Before the last couple of years, worry and anxiety were never challenges for me.  I have the kind of mind that just doesn’t hold on the those kinds of things.  Unlike my husband, who is consumed with worry pretty much all the time, making him miserable, I have always been able to put problems aside to deal with whatever is right in front of me.
But more recently, I’ve suffered from anxiety of the free-floating variety.
Read the reset at Everyday Ediths.

How My Faith Helps Me Worry Less

Until very recently, worry and anxiety have not been challenges for me.  I have the kind of mind that just doesn’t hold on the those kinds of things.  Unlike my husband, who is consumed with worry pretty much all the time, making him miserable, I have always been able to put problems aside to deal with whatever is right in front of me.
Lately, I’ve suffered from anxiety of the free-floating variety.  Because it isn’t rational, it doesn’t respond to rational techniques.  I tend to treat it by whiffing essential oils or going outside to sit in the sun.  What’s worse is when it attaches itself to legitimate areas of worry that I would have been able to put out of my mind in the past.  When that happens, and chanting my usual mantra (Cast your cares on God; that anchor holds.) isn’t working, there is one Scripture passage I turn to.
You know the jokes about Catholics–we don’t read our Bibles and we can’t quote chapter and verse like our Protestant brethren.  Of course that’s not true of all Catholics, and the fact is that most of us are exposed to a lot of Scripture via the Mass readings.  According to this source, a Catholic who attends Mass on Sundays and major feasts will hear about 41% of the New Testament and 4% of the Old (that doesn’t count the Psalms), even if they never crack open a Bible at home or in a study group.
So I know lots of Scripture, even if I don’t always know exactly where to find it.  But I always remember that the passage about anxiety is in the book of Matthew, Chapter 6:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
Even if I have trouble believing it right in the moment, I know that if Jesus said it, it must be true.  Even if I can’t see how, I know He is working all things out for my good.  Even though I can’t always manage it, I want to live as though I really, REALLY believe these words all the time.
And thanks to a new prayer practice I adopted this Lent, I am growing in this area.  More than once, after I have shared my anxieties with God in my prayer journal, insight, answers, and comfort have followed within days.  I find my thoughts turning toward journaling when I am facing a knotty problem in my life or when I am overcome with worries and anxiety.  I find myself really trusting that it is all in God’s hands.
 
This post is part of the Catholic Women’s Blogger Network Blog Hop.  For more articles on faith and worry, click below.
How My Faith Helps Me Worry Less
 

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

I’ve written before about my anxiety dreams.  Last night I had a doozy.
I dreamt that I suddenly realized that I was enrolled in college and that my life had become so complicated that I had simply forgotten all about attending classes for some weeks.  I remember thinking that there was no way that I could go back and make up the work I had missed, and that I had no good reason for a late drop, and that I didn’t want all those W’s on my transcript.  I was making plans to ask all the professors for incompletes and wondering how I would get all that work done.
Then it got worse.  I remembered that I was simultaneously enrolled in high school.  I couldn’t recall why this had been necessary, but there was some reason for it.  I couldn’t remember having attended any of my classes.  I knew I had gotten books and a locker, and I was embarrassed thinking that I was going to have to go to the office and ask where my locker was located and what its combination was, and I was wondering whether I would be able to convince them to forget the whole thing and not mess up my 4.0 average from when I was last there.
I have variations on this dream all the time, and what was particularly evil about last night’s version was that I thought to myself, “This is just like those dreams I always have, only this time it’s real!”
My high school anxiety dream is the most frequent and the worst, but I have another one that’s about Christmas, where I haven’t cooked any food or bought any presents or put up any decorations and it’s the day before Christmas.   Then there’s the driving dream, when I’m on some awful interstate that steep and twisty like a roller coaster, and I don’t know where I am or how to get off of it.  And there are others.
Anyway, I was SO relieved to wake up this morning.  I truly believe that, “It was only a dream,” in one of the most beautiful phrases in the language.
What about you?  Do you have any recurring dreams?  Do you know what they mean?