Have you ever wondered if your struggles are a reflection of your relationship with God? Do you fear that your symptoms of anxiety or depression could indicated your faith is not strong enough? Have you thought that if you pray more and trust more, your issues will go away? Are you worried that God is unhappy with you because of how you feel?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you might not have the complete answer. In this post, I’ll explain what symptoms of mental illness mean in regards to our faith and what you can do about it.
We live in a culture that values freedom, hard work, and independence. While these ideals can be motivating and valuable, they can also be crippling when it comes to mental illness. Often times people find it difficult to admit weakness or ask for help when they are struggling because of our U.S. work ethic and to fight through a situation independently. Additionally, the pain caused by mental illness can be misconstrued in church circles. An individual may be seen as responsible for their illness by somehow not having a strong enough faith or belief in God. It’s almost as if to say that if they had “mustard seed” type faith, there would no longer be an issue, and they just need to be strengthened more in prayer.
On the contrary, depression is more than just feeling down about a situation. It is a true illness which has chronic physical and emotional pain that significantly impacts a person’s ability to function in their daily life. It is distinct from spiritual sufferings, or can accompany it, but it is not always caused by spiritual issues. The DSM 5 (the manual used by all mental health professionals for classification of mental illness) states that clinical depression is marked by depressed mood for most of the day and is usually accompanied by loss of interest in activities and relationships. Symptoms need to be present for at least 2 weeks in order to receive a diagnosis. Similarly, anxiety is more than feeling stressed about a situation in life. It is a debilitating constant level of fear and worry that can manifest with severe physical reactions.
So does living with high levels of fear, worry, anxiety and/or depression indicate that your faith in God is not strong enough? Are you being tempted to despair? Do you need to pray like you’ve never prayed before so it goes away?
Well, the answer is Yes AND No.
“What do you mean by ‘No’?”
Mental health issues bring about many concerns and complications. God gave us two natures. Emotions are natural to us, but spiritual movements are as well. Though we have souls, we cannot forget about our physical, bodily reality. The mental health field does this well by focusing on the biological, psychological, and social aspects of a person. However, some mental health professionals who include the spiritual aspects of a person offer a unique view of treatment. Body and soul are intimately connected and oftentimes in faith circles we can be too quick to over-spiritualize a physical/emotional problem. While it is helpful to view situations in a spiritual context, it can be damaging to assume our emotional problems stem from a lack of faith.
Dr. Aaron Kheriaty is a Psychiatrist who wrote the book, “The Catholic Guide to Depression“. In his book, Dr. Kheriaty explains that depression is an emotional state with legitimate physical effects as well. He says that in addition to feeling hopeless or dejected, a depressed person can report inability or difficulty concentrating and focusing and even changes in appetite.
This gives us an important clue: Cognitive difficulties indicate that there are real psychological changes that occur for someone who is depressed. These changes impact their overall health and well being. In other words, accusing yourself or someone else of not having enough faith is not likely to help you find healing.
Dr. Kheriaty also explains that people suffering from depression have changed their rose-colored-glasses for murky-colored-glasses. Meaning, that situations are viewed and interpreted in a more negative light as a result of neurological changes in their brain. So, if someone is depressed or anxious and has their murky-colored-glasses on, they are not as likely to view a situation as optimistically as someone not suffering from anxiety or depression. Furthermore, he says that a person experiencing depression may not feel or recognize the presence of God in their life in the ways they are accustomed to. This does not mean that it is impossible to be assured of God’s presence in their lives in other ways, but it does mean they are more likely to self-deprecate and are even more in need of your love and support.
“What can I do to help?”
We as Christians must be very careful when a friend or family member is being vulnerable and sharing a health concern with us. Because we love to help and serve, we need to be aware of when our help can actually hurt. Here are a few tips on how to help a friend struggling with depression or mental illness.
- Be mindful of using words or phrases that imply they are not doing enough
- Listen to them
- Say a prayer for them and with them
- Ask if they have been evaluated by a therapist. If they haven’t, help them to find one. Be sure to find a therapist who is knowledgeable about the spiritual life and who is open to discerning the difference between clinical depression and dark night of the soul.
- Encourage them to meet with a spiritual director. Many times, meeting both with a spiritual director and counselor can be helpful.
- Tell them you’re sorry they are experiencing this difficultly
- Use the affirmation tactic of being present as opposed to giving a lesson or instruction about their faith. Giving instruction during a vulnerable moment can be misconstrued as the person doing something wrong, which can make their feelings of depression increase.
- Take this depression screening to find out if a friend or family member has depression and if they do, seek help immediately. The longer someone lives with depressive symptoms, the more difficult it is to treat.
“Okay, got it. So tell me about the ‘Yes’ part.”
As Catholics, we know Jesus told us that if we seek we will find and that if we believe we will receive. Just because you or a loved one has a mental illness, does not mean you should stop praying! However, you pray just as you would for anyone going into surgery or who has cancer. When someone has a serious illness such as heart disease, we are not in the habit of telling them they need to pray more in order to be cured and healed. We do not question their commitment to their faith. Rather, we encourage them, support them in prayer, and try our best to help in times of need.
“What can I use to pray with?”
Whether you’re struggling with mental illness or have a loved one you are praying for. These are a few books and verses I like to keep in mind:
- Romans 12:12 – Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer.
- Colossians 1:24 – Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.
- 1 Peter 5:7 – Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.
- Psalm 40:2-3 – I wait for the Lord; who bends down to me and hears my cry, draws me up from the pit of destruction, out of the muddy clay, sets my feet upon rock, steadies my steps.
- Gary Zimak’s book, “A Worrier’s Guide to the Bible.” This book has daily scripture verses that are easy to read and can help during a difficult time.
(Not sure how to pray with Scripture? You can learn more from Fr. Luke Designer.)
Mark Shea reflects on the Colossians verse above saying, “Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient… (and) a suffering soul can join his or her sufferings to Jesus and, in his mysterious exchange of love, do a great and wonderful thing for others.” If you are suffering with mental illness, you can unite your struggles to the cross and participate in the redemption of souls! Please persevere in your prayer. You are not alone and you can find relief.
As a counselor, I am in awe of the strength and courage I see each day at the office. Pain and suffering are part of the conversation, but there is also an incredible resilience and redemptive power I see in my clients. Many of them carry heavy burdens and yet they are able to overcome obstacles, confront challenges, and achieve tough goals. If that isn’t an example faith and fortitude, I don’t know what is.
If you are someone who struggles with depression or anxiety, please know that you have friends and family who love you and want what’s best for you. Know that they try to do everything they can to help, but don’t always know the right thing to say. Know that no matter what, you are loved by the Creator and your illness is not a reflection of how strong your faith is.
You can heal. God desires your healing (John 10:10). Please don’t be afraid to ask for help. Seek counseling and know that you are just as good of a Christian as anyone else. After all, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” We are all sick. Let the Divine Physician heal you.
If you are unsure if you or a loved one has depression take this screening from Mental Health America. If you have noticed signs of depression or anxiety in yourself, a friend, or family member, please contact www.reginaboyd.com for assistance.
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