Reaching out for help is a sign of strength and an opportunity for us to become more of who God calls us to be..
Recently, I walked into a store, counted to 10, touched a shelf, and left. To most, this would seem to be an inconsequential and rather strange thing to do. For me, however, it was a very significant achievement. I am one of the millions of Americans who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I’m also a believing Catholic who seeks every day to grow closer to Jesus Christ.
Given the current pandemic, more people than normal have experienced significant mental health challenges, and so it seems timely to consider some of the misunderstandings people of faith can have regarding mental health and seeking out therapy. I am not a trained clinician and I not offering any kind of diagnostic tools here; I simply wish to offer thoughts, from my own experience, on how a person who wants to follow Christ can also navigate the world of mental illness. There are three common misconceptions I’ve encountered.
“Oh man, I’m so OCD!”
One of the first things to know, whether you are a person of faith or not, is that mental illness exists on a spectrum rather than as a simple on/off switch. You may have heard someone say, “everyone is a little OCD.” In one sense this sentiment is true, because many people, to varying degrees, experience discomfort or anxiety when faced with uncertainty or a lack of control. The problem, however, is that this mindset misses the difference between a person with typical responses to life experiences and a person with a disorder.
Simply having uncomfortable thoughts or even the odd quirk or two is not eh same as mental illness. The real turning point comes when the thoughts and feelings interfere in the person’s life and relationships. You might be someone who finds trash cans or public bathrooms disgusting and refuse to use them because you’re a “clean freak.” On the other hand, if you find yourself gripped with crippling anxiety anytime you even think about touching a doorknob, you might have a mental illness.
“I don’t need a therapist, I’ll just go see Fr. Jones.”
Another important thing for Catholics and others of faith to know is that it’s okay to need both a therapist and a spiritual director. You might be tempted to think that you don’t need a therapist since you have a trusted spiritual advisor. Although it’s true that there is overlap between these two areas, they are distinct.
Your spiritual director — whether a priest, religious, or lay person — can help you discern what God is asking of you at this particular time in your life, whereas the therapist will help you identify and respond to the thoughts and emotions that are keeping you from a full and healthy life. Often times, something that comes up through spiritual direction can reveal things that should really be addressed in therapy, and vice versa. To be sure, there’s a connection between mental and spiritual health, but we should not make the mistake of thinking one can replace the other.
“Maybe I just need to pray more.”
A third, and related issue, is the belief that mental illness, of whatever stripe, is somehow the result of a lack of faith or even a punishment for sin. Some may believe they can simply “pray away their mental illness,” or, if they suffer from anxiety, then they simply must not trust God as a loving Father. This is possibly one of the more dangerous misconceptions, because not only does it prevent a person in need from getting help but it can also frustrate him or her spiritually.
There is no lack of faith in one who suffers a physical ailment, and neither is mental illness the result of spiritual weakness. If you’re like me and have suffered from OCD and religious scrupulosity, you know you can recognize God has forgiven you but still feel unbearable anxiety at the thought that you didn’t confess a sin in quite the right way. This kind of experience is one that requires a psychological as well as a spiritual response.
We also should not feel weak or ashamed by the idea of taking medications. Just like medications for physical ailments, drugs for mental illnesses can sometimes help us.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t fear or feel shame in admitting that we’re struggling and seeking help. Whether it’s a temporary issue or a more permanent condition, counseling and mental healthcare are gifts from God to help us care for the wounds that are often as easily recognizable as a cut on the arm or a broken leg. Mental illnesses are, however, just as real. Followers of Jesus can pray for the humility and courage to seek the help they need to become whole.
Saints who battled mental illness