Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It touches the lives of people in every corner of society: from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and sports figures. And, of course, those in our families and church community. Yet the subject of mental illness is still rarely spoken of, a taboo of sorts which threatens to continue its rampage unless we stop and take notice.
The biggest stigma surrounding mental illness is that mental illness is a sign of weakness. In reality, the opposite is true. It takes a lot of strength and courage to be able to share our struggles. And once we share them, we find that a lot of people will express their gratitude for our willingness to go to those dark places. When we share our stories of pain and sorrow, we can become a much-needed healing balm to someone else who’s going through a similar experience.
Trauma and Mental Health
Depression, anxiety, and PTSD seem to be the most prevalent when it comes to long-term mental and emotional effects of trauma.
In the last two years, our world has changed with unbelievable speed. Our lives have never seen so much disruption. Families are in crises, and many are struggling with anxiety and depression. It is precisely in times of crises that those who have gone through deep trauma in their lives and haven’t found the proper healing will suffer the most.
My Own Crisis
My bouts with depression happened in 2008 when my husband and I decided to move our growing family from South Florida to his hometown of Bismarck, ND to be closer to his parents. We felt it was important for the kids to grow up close to their grandparents if at all possible (my parents still live in Brazil).
A few months after we moved, the first cold Bismarck hit and I had a rude awakening. Years earlier, I had been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, and the pain is worse for people living in cold climates. Coupled with the fact that I didn’t know anyone except my in-laws, I felt very isolated. It was freezing outside, but inside, I felt like a spiritual desert. And that's when I began to fall into a very deep and dark depression.
The complex condition of depression has mental and physical symptoms that can interfere with your ability to function. When I think back on my depression, Saint John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul” comes to mind. I believe this amazing Saint was commissioned by God to go through his own terrible and long-lived depression so that the Church and her people could best understand this troublesome malady.
Desolation and Desperation
From my own experience, I can say that depression can be an absolute darkness that takes hold of your soul like an endless desolation. For me it also felt like a culmination of all the lies the evil one had planted in my soul: God doesn’t love you! You’ll never find happiness! You’ll never amount to anything!
I would also describe my depression as a glimpse of what hell would be like: a complete disconnection from God Who is the One we desire. Saint Augustine said it perfectly: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
I can say that my heart, at that time in my life, was very restless. I was desperately trying to figure out to whom and where I belonged.
One of my many symptoms was this sadness that I just couldn’t shake. I would cry for no reason at all. I felt I was losing my mind, unable to control my emotions. To compound this I was very lethargic, always tired, and had no motivation to get up in the morning. Thank God my precious children were small; sometimes it was purely the fact of knowing how much they needed me that got me out of bed.
Seeking Help with Past Trauma
I hadn’t dealt with my childhood trauma in a proper way, and when I found myself in the middle of this huge life change, my mind just couldn't handle it. I remember going to my doctor’s office and telling her that I thought I was going crazy.
After patiently and compassionately listening to me, she hugged me and told me that I was not going crazy but was depressed. In her wisdom, this lovely doctor (who also happens to be a devout Catholic) had recognized my affliction right away.
I have to be honest: I was one of those people who didn’t believe depression was a real medical condition, or at least, I thought people exaggerated it. I had to find out the hard way that depression is very real. This wonderful doctor recommended a low dosage of an antidepressant. I was reluctant at first, but agreed to try it. And thank God for that, because this medicine probably saved my marriage.
Much of my story is about the healing I have experienced through spiritual means, but here I want to make the point that there are very real and positive means to healing through medicine and therapy. We should never seek to overcome our pain purely through earthly things, yet God has blessed us (especially in this modern age) with powerful tools that can combat things like depression.
Of course, we cannot abuse these things and become too dependent on them. We must always depend on God first. But we mustn’t write them off either, and we shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed for taking them.
Allowing Our Wounds to Console Others
I had to learn from my own experience that, yes, depression is real. I now have a much better understanding of this and more compassion for anyone dealing with this terrible disease that’s so often still looked upon as a weakness or even as a personality flaw. If someone has cancer, we all offer them our love and support, and rightfully so. But why don't we see the same support and compassion shown to people suffering from this deep pain in our soul that we call depression?
What I have learned from having depression is that the invisible can absolutely kill you if left untreated. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any other type of mental illness needs to be looked at seriously and compassionately.
Freedom through Christ
God desires that all his children live in freedom. This freedom was bought for us at a very high price with the shedding of the Blood of His only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The good news is that our God is a God of restoration. He is a Father who loves us more than we can fathom and would like nothing less than to be our Healer and Comforter.
I believe that God allows us to go through some dark periods in our lives that may purify us, mostly from the illusion that we are in control of our lives. If you or someone you know is dealing with this type of pain, I want to encourage you to look for help. A good place to start is by confiding in a family member, a friend, a priest, or a trusted Christian counselor. Do not hesitate to acknowledge your pain and seek professional help.
My hope is that by sharing some of my past struggles, I can, in some way, help lift the stigma and shame associated with mental illness. My prayer is that God will continue to equip each of us to assist our brothers and sisters who are struggling and are in the blink of despair because of the pain mental illness can inflict upon the souls of those going through it.
Additional Spiritual Tools
The devil, the world and the flesh may be trying to cause havoc in your life or that of your loved ones. If we persevere in faith and bring everything to the foot of the Cross, we will find Christ waiting for us there. At the Cross is where He offers us the weapons we need to fight and win the battle. When we bring our burdens to Him, is His goodness and out of His immense love for us He makes those burdens light (see Matthew 11:28-30).
The good news is that if we place our faith and belief in God at the center of our entire lives—including our mental health—we can learn to use faith-based coping skills to help ease the pain of depression, anxiety, and all other types of mental illness.
Here are just a few examples of those tools:
the Bible, the Living Word
the Mass and the Sacraments
dedication to daily prayer
Dear Lord, teach me how to best surrender all of me to You, especially my mental health. Help me to trust You more and to believe in the immense love You have for me. I choose to set my focus on You instead of my wounded emotions. Amen.
*This post can be found on the Blessed is She blog.