In a given year, nearly one in four adults will be diagnosed with a mental disorder. These disorders can range from mild depression to severe schizophrenia. They can include bipolar disorder, PTSD, generalized anxiety, postpartum depression, and many more. Some can be treated with a combination of therapy and medication, some require lengthy periods of hospitalization. Some mental illnesses go into remission after a time, but many are chronic—meaning they never really go away.
People who suffer from mental illness are subject to every kind of stigma you can imagine, and everyone around them—from family to friends to complete strangers—seems to have a Very Important Opinion regarding the cause of mental illness, how to treat it, and how the mentally ill should feel about their own conditions. Often, people suffering from mental illness are told by those around them that their illness doesn’t actually exist, which only makes things worse and further isolates sick people who need support and healing.
Catholics are not certainly not immune to mental illness and, unfortunately, not immune to contributing to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Because mental illness is often invisible it is either discounted, spiritualized, or romanticized in the eyes of some in the Church who do not suffer from it themselves. Here are things you should avoid saying to Catholics with mental illness.
1. “St. [-insert Therese, Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Gemma, or Magdalena de Pazzi, etc. here] suffered from mental illness and they turned out okay.”
Really, though. Don’t say that. The saints can be an enormous source of comfort for anyone suffering from mental illness (St. Dymphna ayyy girl), but saying it in this way is a gross simplification of what a mentally ill person goes through. Sure, the saints turned out okay, but not without prolonged and intense mental and spiritual suffering. Also, most of them lived long before the advent of modern psychology, so asking us to suffer like them is basically saying “lol you don’t need that silly therapy and medication nonsense.” Try again.
2. “Jesus said in Matthew ‘do not be anxious.'”
Yeah, He did say that. But that’s not the whole verse is it? In every instance in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus urges His followers to not be anxious in reference to material needs, for God the Father will more than provide for them. The sort of anxiousness Jesus speaks about is not, NOT, N.O.T. generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder; it is a state of the soul caused by greed and worldliness. Generalized anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders are not caused by being anxious about food, drink, clothing, or “the things the Gentiles seek.” They are legitimate medical conditions that those who suffer from have literally no control over. I have had panic attacks triggered by stressful situations, and I’ve had panic attacks happen while sitting in bed in my pajamas reading my Bible and drinking chamomile tea. And in none of those instances was I fretting over anything mentioned in Matthew 6:25-34. Sooo, if you’re thinking of using this line, maybe you’re the one who needs to go back and review it?
3. “Padre Pio said ‘Pray, hope, and don’t worry.'”
I’m sorry, was the quote originally “Pray, hope, and just ignore the devastating and possibly life-threatening symptoms of an illness that is entirely out of your control?” Oh, it wasn’t? Just checking.
4. “You don’t need a psychiatrist, you need a spiritual director.”
Everyone could benefit from a good spiritual director. But unless he or she’s a wonderworker, they’re not going to cure anyone’s illness. In fact, spiritual directors are a help to discerning one’s vocation; they are NOT psychologists. Would you tell a person with a broken arm or high blood pressure to see a spiritual director instead of a doctor? Doubt it.
5. “Just give it to God.”
That’s…nice, but is it going to get a mentally ill person out of bed in the morning? Magically stop them from having psychotic episodes? Make them feel like you actually care about them instead of tossing them a trite quote that sounds like it came out of a Rick Warren book? Probably not.
6. “Don’t worry, God will heal you.”
What if He doesn’t? Does that mean He doesn’t love me? Does that mean I’m doing something wrong? Maybe you should actually try to imagine mentally ill people complexly and empathize with them instead of getting into what I can promise you will be a losing battle about theodicy.You might be thinking you’re using God as a source of encouragement, but you might end up using Him as a source of guilt.
7. “Your symptoms sound like demonic possession.”
Welp… If your intention was to make a mentally person either, A) More paranoid than they already are; B ) Feel more worthless and freakish than they already do; and/or C) Terrified to seek support for their illness within the Church, then congratulations! You did an outstanding job. Here’s your first place trophy for the Spread of Mental Illness Stigma heavyweight division.
8. “That’s so beautiful, you can unite yourself to Christ on the Cross. He felt abandoned by God too.”
Sooo let’s break down why this issss…bad.
– Telling a mentally ill person their illness is “beautiful” is possibly the most tone deaf and selfish thing that could come out of your mouth. Mentally ill people don’t exist to inspire you, and if you think another person’s psychosis, psych ward stints, and waking up in the middle of the night screaming because they’re convinced their abuser is in the house about to kill them are “beautiful,” you need to take a good hard look at yourself.
– Yes, we are called to unite our sufferings to Christ on the Cross. Acting as though it is beautiful to suffer from mental illness is just gross. Stop it.
– Don’t assume that mentally ill people feel abandoned by God. In fact, don’t assume you know how people feel about their relationship with God, period.
9. “You just need to get right with God.”
Ummmm no. It’s pretty terrible to assume the state of anyone’s relationship with God (unless you’re that person’s spiritual director), but pinning a mentally ill person’s illness on not being “right with God” (whatever that means in Christianese) is especially awful. Most mental illnesses already make their sufferers feel like they are worthless, wrong, and somehow bad. Don’t make it worse by implying that they need to work harder at trying to please your arbitrary version of God, because they definitely don’t.
10. “Be strong, God is testing you.”
Ok, so if God is testing me with mental illness, how do I know if I’m passing? If I give in and take meds do I fail? When does this magical test end? Is this like a Job situation where I get a bajillion sheep and cattle and a new mansion if I do a good job? Instead of making me feel like I’m a sinner in the hands of an angry God who afflicts His creatures with terrifying illnesses for funsies, maybe just offer to pray for me or give me a bottle of wine. Or both. Either one of these options is vastly more helpful and charitable.
Dealing with mental illness is hard. It’s hard on the people who suffer from it, and it’s hard on their loved ones. One of the worst things you can do is trivialize their struggles by knowingly or unknowingly implying that everything gets better with prayer (it doesn’t), that it’s as easy as “giving it to God,” (it’s not), that somehow this is the mentally ill person’s fault (it never is). Think before you speak. Mental illness is as real and as serious as physical illness. Don’t say anything to a mentally ill person that you wouldn’t say to someone with grave injuries or cancer. Because the truth is, mental illness can’t be understood or dealt with in terms of pious-sounding Christianese phrases, or short and sweet quotes from the saints. If you really want to help a mentally ill person, get to know them, and if necessary, help them seek professional help. Listen to them. Pray with them. Empathize with them. Let them know you will support them with your prayers.
In this Year of Mercy, I challenge you to be God’s mercy to anyone you know who is suffering from mental illness.