©2019 Rachel Wong.

On Being a Catholic with Mental Illness


This is me in 2016, prior to having the worst panic attacks in my life to date.

Lately I've felt compelled to write and share about the relationship between my mental health and my personal Catholic faith. I have a number of drafts saved and blogs where I started and stopped, and I continued to ask for clarity in this area. Many times people are surprised to hear about my own struggles with mental health. Sometimes people question how I still have struggles with my mental health if I have a faith and believe in God.


So, I wanted to share a little more insight.


A little background:

Depression and anxiety have followed me around pretty much since the eighth grade. When I think about my life and past, I think the biggest contributing factors to this included: 1) Bullying

2) The unrealistic striving for perfection

3) Poor relationships, some of which were abusive


I have panic disorder and unfortunately have had a number of panic attacks over the years, have had suicidal ideation, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a reality in my life, especially recently.


Reading all that, sometimes I marvel at how I can still have a faith despite my struggles. And many times, I am told how rare and sometimes strange it is. An interaction with a fellow Christian who, though I'm sure was well-meaning, simply told me after I shared my story that "there is no way that God allows you to have these mental illnesses."


The disconnect

I think that this is where the misconception lies. I certainly have questioned where God was throughout my life when I was going through some of the darkest periods where I felt most alone, most isolated, and most lost. If our God is a God who loves unconditionally and has a plans for our welfare and not our harm (Jeremiah 29:11), then why did He allow for this suffering to take place in my own life?


When it comes to general suffering and evil in the world, many people point to Adam and Eve and the fall. Sin was brought into the world through the fall, and because of that we have created a separation between us and God. We talk about the free will that we have as human beings, and that free will shows the amount of love God has for us, that He allows us to make our own choices. He doesn't interfere or force us to love us, though He desires for us to choose Him and be close to Him.


So when we think about it, it can be easy to start to go down the rabbit hole of mental illness as a choice, as decided separation from God, and ultimately as a sin. I've been in countless conversations about this with Christians and fellow Catholics. It's been something that I've grappled with for many years, because we know in the discourse around mental health and de-stigmatization that mental illness is not a choice. After all, I don't know if it's plausible to say that people choose to be depressed or anxious or suicidal — I certainly don't.


There are many things that contribute to the decline of someone's mental health, from interpersonal relationships to grief to genetic pre-disposition to chemical imbalances... there are no shortage of factors. But the disconnect has always been how someone could possibly have a faith background and have a mental illness.


I think for a long time, I was doing Catholicism wrong. If I was doing it correclty, there would be no way that I would be depressed, because God provides for me, protects me, and gives me what I need... right?


Yes, absolutely. But your faith and your mental wellbeing are not mutually exclusive.


Seeing faith and mental illness hand in hand


It took me years to get to a place of acceptance that I, as a sinner, was worthy of God's love. The contributing factors I listed in the beginning all have a common thread to them, and that is a misunderstanding of love and what that means. I have come to learn recently that my biggest struggle has been my identity as a daughter of God. As a woman, I have a desire to be desired. I want to be loved, appreciated, and know that I belong.


But so many times, we can lose sight of whose love is the most important. I used to equate God's love for me with what I was able to do, and slowly I saw my self-worth and ability to be loved by other people in the same transactional way. It's clear how this can impact a person's wellbeing and mental health. I had so much anxiety about doing things right and accomplishing all the goals I had set out for myself that I had insomnia, severe shaking, and panic attacks.


It's good to work hard, but not at the expense of your physical and mental health.


After my re-conversion back to the faith in 2016, I saw where I had misled myself when it came to my ability to be loved. Miraculously, a lot of my physical symptoms were gone after that, and I have God to thank for that.


But this is not to say that life has been easy and perfect since then. I actually started taking medication after, and continued to feel depression and anxiety from time to time.


The biggest difference, though? I know who I am and whose I am. There are days where it's challenging to get up in the morning and difficult to go about my daily life. Sometimes it's a struggle to remember my identity as a daughter of God when things seem to be going horribly wrong. Even when it feels like the world is ending, I am anchored in something greater and beyond myself.


So, what to do about mental illness in the context of faith?


To be clear, I am no expert, doctor, or psychologist. What I am an expert in is my own experience and how I've coped with this in the past and present. I've been grateful for the opportunity over the years to give a few talks and workshops on this very topic.


As mentioned, mental health/illness and your faith are not mutually exclusive. You can have a faith background and have mental illness — having one doesn't automatically grant you immunity from the other. But, I must say that my Catholic faith — and coming to understand myself as a Catholic individual with mental illness — provides much more context for myself.


The first thing I would suggest is to seek out the level of professional help you need, whether that be counselling or talking to your doctor about medication. Medication doesn't always need to be the first thing you go to. I had gone through nearly 6 years of counselling and trying to improve my life habits (i.e. exercise, sleep, eating well, etc) before getting my first prescription for anti-depressants.


Take time for yourself. Whether that's a retreat, or starting a novena, or changing your life habits, do what you need to to help yourself feel better. Retreats are usually good for that because it gives you the time and space that you need to centre back in on what's important in your life.


Find people who you trust to talk through your suffering with. It's never healthy to bottle things up inside, and sometimes it can be unsafe — I've been there before. Admittedly, it can be hard to find people to talk to about this because it can drastically alter the way people perceive you. But those who are true friends — those who truly love you for you — will still see you in your beauty and strength in the face of these personal adversities, Finding that support system is crucial, as they become friends to motivate you and also pray for you.


Give yourself a break. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you will not get better over night. One round of counselling won't solve all your problems. You will have good days, but you will also have bad days — but that is not the end of the world! As you go through life, learn how to be compassionate and kind to yourself. You aren't perfect and you shouldn't be expected to do everything perfectly because of that. Take comfort in the fact that God loves you regardless of where you've been, what sins you've committed, and how far gone off the path you are. You are precious in His eyes!


To those who know someone who is struggling:

This may be difficult to accept, and it might also be a surprise to hear that someone you know is struggling with mental illness. Though I have my personal experiences with it, sometimes I too get surprised when someone confides in me. Strive to approach these people with empathy and understanding. Even if you have never experienced mental illness in your own life, take care in your conversations. Encourage them and pray for them.


One thing that I found to not be useful — and frankly a little hurtful — is being told to "pray it away". While I agree that prayer is a powerful tool, many times this comment, while well-meaning I'm sure, can be misplaced. Mental illness is something that needs to be treated whether by medication or counsellling or habit changes. Prayer can help shift our hearts, thinking, and disposition, and can be powerful in maintaining a much needed connection to our Lord. But this can't stand in place of seeking professional help when necessary. Encourage prayer by offering to pray for the other person or praying with the other person, and offer to go with them to seek out help together.


I hope this has been helpful. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you want to chat more, you want to request a talk/workshop on this topic, or would like to ask for a prayer intention.


St. Dymphna, pray for us!

Rachel

PS, from The Feminine Genius Podcast, take a listen to my conversation with Catholic writer and mental health advocate Lisa Rumpel: