Living Out the Faith with Mental Illness

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By Maria Elser, Mount Saint Mary’s

Mental illness is increasingly prevalent in our world. Its two most common disorders consist of anxiety and depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million people have been diagnosed with the former and 16.1 million with the latter in the United States alone. These mental illnesses can be painfully debilitating, as they cause significant disruption in a person’s daily life. Anxiety can invoke paralyzing fear that makes decisions dreadful to approach and depression causes feelings of hopelessness and disinterest in everyday activities that are usually enjoyed by the average individual. These disorders can make it seemingly impossible to conjure the focus and motivation needed to participate in activities of daily life – including prayer. 

Personally, I suffer from both depression and an anxiety disorder. When I was diagnosed with these illnesses, I felt a self-imposed pressure that begged some serious questions: If I am a woman of faith, how can I be so anxious? How can I be depressed? If I truly trust the Lord, how can I feel this way?

After much prayer and contemplation, I arrived at the realization that my suffering from these disorders was not the result of lacking faith. Having a mental illness and being religious are not mutually exclusive . There are far more faithful people who suffer from mental illnesses than we may initially estimate. So, where do we begin in learning how to retain our relationship with God throughout times of despair? The two key components to addressing mental health: professional treatment and prayer.

Despite the scientific advances of the 21st century, there still seems to be a stigma against therapy and psychological medications. A mental illness is just that: an illness. It is common to seek out treatment for a debilitating physical illness in order to restore your functionality in daily life. So, why not receive treatment for a mental illness such as anxiety or depression?

Thankfully, God has blessed our generation with an abundance of resources within our grasp. He created the doctors who develop psychological medications that restore chemical imbalances in the brain. He created the therapists and health care workers who serve the afflicted. He gave us so many tools that He wants to heal us through, but we must take the first step towards using them.

It can undoubtedly be frightening to take the first steps in seeking out treatment. I vividly remember my own hesitations to seek help because I was afraid of being humiliated for my condition. I did not want others to know my struggles, my fears, and about how my brain works. But the truth is, we cannot carry our own crosses. We are made for relationship; first and foremost, with the Lord, but also with those in our community who want to love us and see us healed. Perhaps you are too terrified to talk to a friend or family member about your struggles. Perhaps you are scared to make that call and set up your first appointment. Perhaps you fear the vulnerability and honesty required in speaking to a therapist. These can certainly be fear-inducing steps. It is so important to remember, however, these leaps of faith are indeed guiding you towards recovery and support. 

Therapy can be immensely helpful in unpacking your beliefs, fears, and ways of thinking. It aids in providing explanations for how your circumstances, environment, experiences, and nature have shaped who you are. In coming to terms with these elements, we can better understand who God created us to be and what direction he wants us to go in. The Lord cares about you infinitely and He wants you to take those steps in your journey towards recovery – whatever they may be for you personally. And as you walk along, know and trust that He is there with you.

In my personal experience, these disorders have caused challenges in my relationship with God. First, depression can completely drain my motivation and interest in life, making everything seem purposeless. Second, my dark and persistent intrusive thoughts feed lies to me, suggesting that I am not worthy or holy enough to come to Him in prayer: that I am not good, that I am not enough, that I never will be, and that there is no point in trying. When thoughts like these incessantly circulate like an excruciating broken record player, entering into prayer becomes a seemingly insurmountable task. I know, however, that it is during these depressive episodes when I am in a place of desolation and darkness that I need prayer most of all.

Of all things, peace is the ultimate remedy that the anxious and depressed seek. Christ Himself – being the Prince of Peace – longs to heal and comfort us. For so long now, I have found myself in prayer begging for His instantaneous tranquility in moments of intense suffering. What I have more recently come to understand, though, is that Christ is extending His peace to us all the time. He just requires our initiative to uncross our arms and embrace our crosses through conversation with Him.

Even with this in mind, approaching prayer with an attitude of peace can be difficult when motivation is low. In my experience, I have found the following practical tips very helpful in reorienting my thoughts to Him:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. When I am experiencing a depressive episode, my hope is depleted, and it is difficult to cling to the good. Writing letters to God about all the things in my life that I am grateful for helps me to see the light in my life once again.
  • When dark thoughts intrude my head, try not to fight them. Instead, recognize and label them. Attaching a label to a feeling or thought can make it more manageable. You do not even need to assign a story or explanation to the feeling. Just name the feeling and let it be.
  • When dark thoughts crop up to distract and discourage you, it is helpful to come prepared with positive counter-thoughts that are rooted in Truth. Call out the lies you are being fed and replace them by asking God to reconvict you of the Truth.
  • Remember that He is with you always. In times when you feel particularly alone, try to envision Jesus walking right there beside you. He is sitting next to you on the floor of your bedroom and wiping away your every tear. He is there beside you in the car during an overwhelming panic attack, ready to console you and bring you peace. He is waiting to listen and love you as you are, even in the darkest of nights. Let him.

Brothers and sisters, please know that the Lord cares for you deeply and wants to heal you. He views you as His worthy son or daughter and He longs for a relationship with you. No matter where you are on your spiritual or mental health journey, He is waiting for you with open arms to take those first steps toward Him. He will embrace you, comfort you, and make you whole.

These illnesses can feel isolating but know that you are by no means alone in these difficulties that you face. There are thousands of others still pursuing Christ while battling mental illness. With our community of love and support, we as brothers and sisters in Christ can run together toward recovery, peace, and the Lord who loves us infinitely.

Edited by: Christopher Centrella

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