(Part one of a two-part series on mental health and spirituality. This story first appeared in the November issue of the Anglican Journal.)
Soon after The Rev. Claire Miller arrived at her new parish of St. Thomas Anglican Church in Owen Sound, Ont., she complained to a parishioner about feeling drained. Now, years later, she still remembers his response.
“He said, ‘But you’re holy. You’re closer to God. You shouldn’t be feeling these things.’ ”
If only he knew. For most of her life, Miller says, she has struggled with anxiety and, in her words, “times of deep clinical depression.” Medication has helped her a lot, she says. So has prayer-especially in the form of singing hymns or writing a journal to God.
Every 10 years or so, however, the drug she’s using fails to be effective anymore, and she needs to switch to something new. The adjustment can take two or three months, she says-and put her in places that don’t seem particularly holy.
“There are times that I wonder where God is in this, especially when it goes on too long and I’m thinking I should be feeling better,” she says. “When you’re in the depths of it, that often happens.”
Miller is definitely not alone. To many people of faith struggling with mental health problems, religion can at times seem like a double-edged sword, suggests Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, chief executive officer of Southdown Institute, a psychological treatment facility for clerics outside Toronto. It can be a priceless font of hope and healing, but also a source of particular challenges-putting pressure on clerics, for example, to be almost immune to normal fluctuations of mood.
“We expect them to be a perfect model just short of being God or Jesus Christ,” she says.
For many believers, too, the notion that one can simply pray one’s way through mental distress leads to a form of prayer that is both a “masquerade” of real piety and a barrier to seeking help, says Canon Megan Collings-Moore, chaplain at Renison University College, at the University of Waterloo.
“Because the prayer is masquerading as religious language, it’s harder for them to then move to the point where they say, ‘actually, maybe I should get some help; maybe I should see somebody about that,‘” she says.
Or mental illness can even be seen as a sign of sin; the hopelessness of depression necessarily means a lack of faith.
Religion often seems like a blessing to Melanie Delva, archivist at the diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver. Formally diagnosed with recurrent major depressive disorder in 2007, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorder, Delva says she has suffered the symptoms of mental illness since around 1995, when she was a teenager. Medication helps her, Delva says, but faith is even more important in helping her cope and grow with her challenges.
“Medication can keep me on the rails to a certain extent, but faith animating life-there’s no medication that can animate life for you,” she says.
“In my own struggle with mental illness, there has been surviving and there has been living…I can go through the motions. I can get up and go to work. But that’s not living. The times when I have been able to live have been times when I have been able to integrate my faith into my survival so that survival becomes life.”
For Delva, this could mean anything from seeing a dandelion growing out from under a dumpster as somehow a miracle of God, or reflecting on Lent to discern meaning in suffering.
“I find that being able to move into my brokenness in a really intentional way actually helps me,” she says. “Lent…helps me to move through my depression, to be able to actually name the brokenness.”
It wasn’t always this way. Delva was raised in a church in which, she says, she was made to feel ashamed about the symptoms of her mental illness. She was told that her depression was the punishment of God for sins perpetrated by her ancestors of the third and fourth generation.
Members of that church, she says, saw her feelings of hopelessness as “me refusing to see the goodness of God in my life, me being selfish…it was my sin, the sin of my family” and suggested that she ought to deal with her despair by, essentially, praying harder.
The advice was intended to help her, she says. But it just made her feel worse.
“I took the messages that people were giving me as…’this is God’s people speaking God’s word into my life.’ So I saw it as: God is ashamed of me. God is angry at me. God thinks I need to clean up my act.”
Eventually, she felt that God hated her and had abandoned her.
“It absolutely damaged my faith,” she says. “So if I didn’t have that, what hope is there to animate my life? And if I lose my connection to faith and to God, there is nothing to animate hope anymore. So there isn’t anything to get up for in the morning.
“The impact goes both ways. It can turn my life into something that’s worth living and it can turn my life into something that’s not.”
Delva says that when she rejected the teachings of her family’s church, it ostracized her as one of the “lost,” and as a result, she no longer has any contact with her family.
Delva traces these teachings of her family’s church’s to what she says was its radical evangelical strain. Some evidence suggests there may be a connection between evangelical Christianity and the notion that one can simply pray one’s way through mental illness. Nearly half-48%-of evangelical respondents to a 2013 survey said they believed prayer alone could overcome serious mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, compared to 27% of non-evangelical respondents.
If this view is more prevalent among evangelicals, it seems that at least some of them worry about its effects. The 2013 survey was conducted by a U.S. evangelical research firm, LifeWay Research, whose president, Ed Stetzer, said he was concerned by its findings. In an interview with The Guardian, Stetzer said the survey showed churches need to work harder at understanding mental illness.
“You have to distinguish between character change and mental illness, and I think that’s sometimes hard for people to do,” he said.
For her part, Collings-Moore says she sees this kind of belief in Christians of all stripes. “I would say there’s a huge base of Christianity that [believes that] if you believe, you’ll always be assured that God is with you and you’ll always feel that,” she says. It’s akin, she says, to the notion that nothing bad will ever happen to us if we have enough faith-a belief she calls “the total opposite, actually, of the gospel [teaching].
“If that was the truth, then Jesus doesn’t end up on the cross, so clearly that’s not actually what we proclaim!” she says.
Trying to cope with mental illness through prayer alone can be especially dangerous if the illness is long-term. “Pushing through or just keeping going regardless is disastrous for chronic health issues, and a lot of mental health stuff is chronic,” Collings-Moore says.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that mental illness can pose special problems to people of faith, given the often problematic relationship that psychology and religion have had with one another-think, for example, of Sigmund Freud’s view of religion as a kind of psychiatric problem.
Today, however, many people most concerned with faith and mental illness-Christians grappling with mental challenges, psychological professionals and spiritual counsellors-say that the landscape is changing.
In the next part of this series, the Anglican Journal will look at how a shifting understanding of the relationship between faith and psychology is helping mentally-ill Christians both cope with their condition and grow spiritually.