Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On Mental Illness

Editor's Note: This post is from TJ Birnbaum.

Dear internet folks,
Recently, while scrolling through the little corner of the web affectionately known as Catholic Twitter, I stumbled across a post from a popular Christian account. The post, summed up, said that anxiety could be fixed by simply turning to God, and that the only reason anyone ever struggles with anxiety is because they aren’t faithful enough.
Oh boy.
This post, along with numerous others that pop up almost daily, talk about anxiety and depression as if it is something that can be magically healed by reading the Bible. Furthermore, they accuse those who struggle of being starved spiritually.
This is wrong.
I originally wanted to write this post as an elegant response to these tweets, but the more I wrote (and rewrote), I found that I kept falling into a long, unstructured rant. That was no good. So instead, I’m writing this as a listicle of rants pertaining to the issue of Catholicism and mental illness. They probably won’t be short. Or punchy. Or even to the point. But they will be full of my thoughts.
So let’s begin.
(Note: this article is entirely based off of my thoughts and experiences as someone who struggles with severe anxiety and bouts of depression. I am not a doctor. I am not a priest. I am simply a Catholic with some issues, as I assume some of you can relate to. If you are looking for spiritual advice, please talk to a priest. If you’re looking for help with mental health issues, please see a psychiatrist. Thank you.)
A Catholic’s Guide to Mental Illness (Semi-Partially Abridged Version)
1: What Is Mental Illness?
Since most people talking about mental illness in the context I wrote about above don’t seem to understand what mental illness really is, this is where I’m going to start. The treatment of an illness always lies in knowing its cause, and mental illness is no different. If we are to effectively attack this issue, we must know what it is, and (seemingly more important) what it is not.
WHAT MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT: a lack of spirituality, “spiritual starvation,” a poor prayer life, a disconnect from God.
None of these are the causes of mental illness. They may contribute to feelings of anxiety, worry, or depression, but they themselves are not the cause of actual mental illnesses.
WHAT MENTAL ILLNESS IS: I will use the example that I know, since it’s the one I have to live with: anxiety. Anxiety disorders happen when the brain is unsure of what its supposed to be afraid of. It knows the big things, like fire and bears, but it isn’t quite sure of the little things, so it becomes afraid of them, too (just in case). In my case, with a nice combo of generalized and social anxiety, my brain figures that everyone in the world is a threat, and that I’m better off just not making contact with them. This causes me to struggle with making conversation, to feel uncomfortable whenever I’m around others, and to be unable to read social cues (just tell me what you’re thinking, because I won’t get it otherwise).
All of this is problematic. All of this is also independent of my spiritual life.
In my past, I’ve ebbed and flowed on the course of my spiritual journey, and right now I’m currently doing better spiritually than I ever have been before.
Anxiety is still there, y’all.
This leads me into my second part:
2: Treatment Is Essential
My spiritual life, as I said, is currently better than it ever has been before. I’m still not perfect, and I do have a lot of room to improve, but compared to where I used to be, I’m light-years ahead.
Light-years. That’s a long way.
And I’m still struggling with my problems. They haven’t suddenly gone away now that I read Scripture. This is because (here’s the shocking part) mental illness is actual illness. And what do responsible people do when they have an illness?
They treat it.
It’s really that simple. There shouldn’t be any argument against it. People who are ill should be treated, so they can stop being ill. It isn’t hard to get.
I was once someone who was under the impression that my mental issues were due to a lack of prayer. A lack of spirituality. The beliefs I’m talking about here are ones I partially held myself once (“Oh, I’m not struggling with a REAL mental illness. This is just because I’m a sinner.”), and they are part of the reason I held off on getting treatment.
This thinking was dangerous for me.
I fell into a hole of thinking that my pain was simply because I was unfaithful, and that if I became more holy I would get better. So I did my best to do so, but didn’t get any better. In fact, I started to get worse. After a while of this, I became trapped in the idea that I wasn’t good enough, that I was never going to be good enough to be mentally sound.
That’s why this idea is so wrong. An issue in the brain is not an issue of you not being good enough. It’s an issue with your brain. Plain and simple. And an issue with your brain can be treated.
However, this does not rule out the importance of prayer in the treatment process.
3: Prayer (I Ran Out of Creative Titles)
Treatment is vital. Mental illness is caused by issues in the brain, not by a lack of faith. These facts have been established. However, as Christians we believe that prayer is vital as well. Not just for those who are struggling with health issues, but for everyone.
So where does prayer actually fit in all of this?
Well, the answer is going to sound weird and cliché, but it fits in everywhere.
Like all illness, prayer and treatment go hand-in-hand. Think about it: if you are very ill, you go to the hospital. While you’re in the hospital, you receive treatment for your illness. What else do you do? Well, you do your best to grow closer to God through prayer.
Pray for strength. Pray for grace. Yes, pray for health. Ask everything you need through God.
This is no different in the case of mental illness. Treatment is essential, because to not use treatment would be to turn down a gift that God has already tried to give you. Human intelligence and medicine are gifts. Denying them while asking God for help would be like paying a taxi driver and telling them to leave you behind.
That’s just stupid.
So get treatment, and pray. Grow closer to God, and grow in humility by asking others to help. This brings me to my final point:
5: Relationships Are Key
We’ve established that, like all other illnesses, treatment and prayer are necessary when fighting a mental illness. There is one more essential aspect that needs to be mentioned: relationships.
Mental illness is a bugger in that it works from the inside, causing problems that only you can see. The problems are multiplied by the fact that it affects everyone differently. Nobody experiences it in quite the same way. This can be isolating. And isolation is a problem.
This may seem like a surprise coming from someone with social anxiety, but I promise it’s not a mistake.
Catholic theology has consistently held the principle that human beings are relational creatures, meant for life with one another and with God. We are all called to be members of the Communion of Saints (emphasis on the communion). This relational purpose drives our very purpose: to know and love God, and to bring others to know Him. This cannot be done without relationships.
This relational nature means that human beings are innately called to help one another. As it is written in Ecclesiastes (chapter 4, verse 10 for those keeping track at home), “If one fall he shall be supported by the other; woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth, he hath none to lift him up.” This is not a figurative passage, and it relates directly to the struggle of mental illness. The support of family and friends is absolutely necessary for everything else to fall into place.
This is my happy note to end on. I still have a long way to go in my journey towards being somewhat normal, but I would not be where I am without the support of friends and family every step of the way. Treatment is enormously helpful, and prayer has helped me make progress in my life that I never thought possible, but none of it would’ve happened without the support of others, helping me when it gets hard, lifting me when I fall.
This is where I give my helpful advice: if you are struggling with mental illness, begin by finding support. People you can count on. Follow that with prayer; open your heart to God and see what He has to say. Then, when you feel you’re ready, get treatment. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.
And for those of you who aren’t struggling, be that support for those who are. Relationships go both ways, and someone who’s willing to provide support is much easier to work with than someone who isn’t. 
For everyone, always remember that you’re loved. In the eyes of God and in the eyes of others, you are precious and beloved. Keep that in mind as you move forward. And, no matter how dark the present is, keep your eyes on the light that will come. Because it will come.
I’m in constant need of this reminder as well.
We’ll get there. Together. As one church, as one people, we’ll get there.
Until then, I only ask that you continue to try. Continue to pray. Continue to help others, and continue to allow yourself to be helped.
I’ll try my best to do the same.

Your friend in Christ,
TJ

1 comment:

  1. A great response to the intellectually-void idea that equates lack of faith with disorders.

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