Through a Glass Darkly: Mental Illness Is Still Murky Territory for Those Who Experience It, Their Families, and Their Church

By Weaver, Anna | U.S. Catholic, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Through a Glass Darkly: Mental Illness Is Still Murky Territory for Those Who Experience It, Their Families, and Their Church


Weaver, Anna, U.S. Catholic


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Nor long after Rich Salazar moved to DeKalb, Illinois from California, he found himself knocking at the door of St. Mary's Church. The then-college student had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was in crisis mode. Unable to reach his mother at work and not knowing where else to go, Salazar told himself, "I have to go to church."

Father William Schwartz answered his knocks and, although the parish was closed for the evening, invited him in. "He talked to me, calmed me down," Salazar says. The priest called his mother and told him he could stay at the church as long as he needed. "He was very kind. I told him the church has never let me down."

That's when Schwartz responded, "Someday it might."

For many Catholics experiencing mental illness and their families, the church can be both a place of welcome and alienation. Just as society has struggled with how to deal with those with mental illness, U.S. parishes and dioceses have found the area equally challenging.

Many in Catholic mental illness advocacy agree with Chicago Deacon Tom Lambert when he says, "As a church we're just beginning to address the issues on a church-wide and institutional level."

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in four Americans has a mental disorder. of those, one in 17 has a serious mental illness such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

To Portland, Oregon psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Welch, those large numbers mean that every Catholic is affected by mental illness in some way. "The people next to you in the pews may have a mental illness or have family [members] who have mental illness," he says. "By virtue of Baptism, we're all equal members of the church, and we need to be mindful of that."

Shrinking stigma

As research has shown that mental disorders aren't just moods to be shaken of for, in severe cases, uncorrectable issues requiring time in a mental institution, the stigma once attached to them has slowly been eroding.

"The church's response parallels society," says Dorothy Coughlin, the Archdiocese of Portland's director of the Office for People with Disabilities.

Nancy Kehoe, a Society of the Sacred Heart sister and psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, remembers a time when there was a lot of secrecy around mental illness. "If a nun had to be taken to the psychiatric ward in a hospital, there was a lot of shame in having a psychiatric disability," she says. "It wasn't even known to people immediately around her where she went."

On the flip side, Kehoe recalls the public nature of a Cambridge-area pastor who took leave for a few months. Upon his return he announced to his parishioners that he was experiencing depression and would be stepping down to serve a smaller parish and continue dealing with it. But, Kehoe notes, a pastor openly addressing his struggles with depression "was unusual even in 2009."

New Jersey psychologist Kenneth Herman started practicing in 1955 and says that at the time the Catholic clients who came to see him dealt with a lot of guilt, anxiety, and fear over their faith in everything from eating meat on Fridays to sexual issues. "It was a sin if you thought anything that was considered negative," he says. "You got the wrath of the church, and that produced a lot of guilt, especially with people who were a little fragile emotionally."

While Herman doesn't believe the Catholic Church did it intentionally, he says, "The church had an opportunity to send a lot of positive messages, but they didn't." By the time he retired a few years ago, Herman says he saw a change in how Catholics viewed their faith.

Author Therese Borchard writes about how guilt has played a large role in her own struggles with bipolar disorder in her new book, Beyond Blue (Center Street). …

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