Faith And Mental Health

Giovanni Bellini

From time to time, my wife and I are asked about the place or role of our Catholic Christian faith in coping with the reality of mental illness within our family.  It’s a valid question, but I have to be honest; it catches me off guard.  When the question is asked, it seems that those asking are assuming that our Church provides specific tools for coping with mental illness that can’t be found in secular, evidence-based healthcare. I believe tools for managing, and indeed thriving, within these challenges are present, but I don’t think they are as explicit as one might imagine.

But I have been giving it some thought.

One of the biggest challenges in the early stages of the manifestation of mental health issues in a loved one is the sense of powerlessness and a lack of control. In a recent discussion with other caregivers, we agreed that this was a big challenge for all of us.  When our children cut a finger or scrape a knee, the solution is relatively straightforward and concrete; some disinfectant, a band-aid, a kiss, and a hug.  For more serious illnesses and injuries, there are a host of doctors and medications and treatments that will, more often than not, put things to right for us again.

Mental illness, though, is a beast that strikes to the core of the challenged individual and the lives of all of those who are close to them.  The length and breadth and scope of the issues and challenges are quickly overwhelming, as are their more intangible nature. In this light, the experience of living with mental illness as a caregiver, if far more similar to discovering your loved one has a debilitating disease or serious, perhaps even terminal illness, than it is to the usual bumps, scrapes, and illnesses of life.  In the case of both cancer or mental illness, the sufferer and the caregiver find themselves facing a problem that is suddenly beyond them and anything you might do to battle or ‘cure’ it.

This space of powerlessness, or recognizing one’s limitations in the face of a power far bigger than you, this is a space that faith can and does speak into quite profoundly.  There is a reason why 12-step programs find great success in first insisting that participants recognize and be willing to turn to a ‘higher power’ or some sort in order to develop ways of coping with a chronic addictions challenge.  Acknowledging that one does not have ultimate control over this situation and that all possible responses and actions are necessarily limited provides a mysteriously calming level of freedom and clarity. 

These biblical scenes to invite me into spaces where events are beyond my control, but where I find, in Jesus Christ, one who not only has walked a similar, suffering path but who is willing to sit with me in the struggle and in the darkness for as long as it takes, as long as I need.

One other aspect of faith that has helped to not only build resiliency as a caregiver but has been of great benefit in companioning my daughter in her mental health challenges is the experience of the quiet spiritual companionship of Jesus Christ, who invites me to carry my own experiences of suffering side-by-side with his suffering.  One space of prayer that I have turned to, or been encouraged to enter into by my spiritual director, has been Jesus’ agony in the garden and the narrative of his passion and death on the cross.

As with the realization of the scope of mental illness and my own powerlessness to do much of anything to ‘cure’ my daughter, these biblical scenes to invite me into spaces where events are beyond my control, but where I find, in Jesus Christ, one who not only has walked a similar, suffering path but who is willing to sit with me in the struggle and in the darkness for as long as it takes, as long as I need.

This is more than just edifying for myself.  This is a profound model of companionship that has become a cornerstone of my relationship with my daughter.  While there are times when we can walk through checklists of tools and strategies for dealing with a particular crisis when it arises, there are far more times when we are both utterly powerless to bring light into whatever dark place her mental health challenges have dragged her into. It is at those times I try to remember the incredible power of willing, compassionate companionship. The strength that can come from doing the only thing we can do in situations larger than ourselves and beyond our control. To sit with another in their suffering, in their fear, in their darkness and doubt, in their uncontrollable rage, or crippling anxiety and sadness; this is not nothing. This is often the most powerful thing we can do for and with another. A skill learned at the patient feet of the Master himself.

Faith is not a magical panacea that will make all hurts, all fears, all the suffering of mental illness disappear. But, for my family, it has provided an additional avenue and model for coping and companioning. And when it comes to living with mental illness in the home, there are times when you need all the help you can get.

– Deacon Eric

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