(Last of a two-part series)
Religion, say some mental health experts, has at times been a mixed blessing for people of faith struggling with mental illness-but the picture is changing, bringing new hope for the afflicted.
Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, chief executive officer of The Southdown Institute, a psychological treatment facility for clergy outside Toronto, says that priests struggling with mental health problems have often faced a barrier to getting help, based on the notion that their faith should be sufficient and that they, therefore, needn’t turn to psychology.
However, Heiderscheit says, a growing awareness in recent decades of what mental illness is, and of the complex relationship between faith and psychology, has considerably dismantled this block to seeking help. One result of this has been a change in the mindset of clerics coming to Southdown. “Their attitude is different from the days of just being ordered to come,” she says. “They come knowing that they’ve got something to look at, and grateful that they’ve got a safe environment to do it.”
The change is happening in institutions, too, not just attitudes. In Canada, numerous parishes and dioceses have taken up projects intended to raise awareness of mental health issues and support the mentally ill. The diocese of Rupert’s Land, for example, has over the past year been involved in a mental health initiative that includes, among other things, a “mental health first aid program” equipping clerics with a protocol to follow when dealing with mentally ill parishioners.
St. Aidan’s, a parish in London, Ont., held a year-long focus on mental health that wrapped up this summer with a special healing service for all Londoners. Anglican clergy and other employees who find themselves in mental distress are now supported by the Employee Assistance Program, which allows them access to free, confidential short-term counselling.
Still, the Canadian church may be lagging behind its American cousin. Since 1991, The Episcopal Church has run a national ministry for supporting mentally ill members, the Episcopal Mental Illness Network. This summer, the church’s 78th General Convention passed a resolution calling on its dioceses, congregations, schools and other entities to “explore and adopt best practices” for the “inclusion, support and spiritual care” of mentally ill people and their families.
But in the Anglican Church of Canada, there’s no common understanding about how the church should view mental illness or exercise ministry around it.
The growing recognition of mental health as a sphere distinct from spirituality does not mean that the two are completely unrelated, Heiderscheit says. “They’re intertwined,” she says. “If your emotional life is not going well, you need to be integrating that with your spiritual life as well, because your spiritual life is what’s going to give you the strength to be honest and face whatever it is you have to face.”
The Rev. Susan Titterington, a psychotherapist and rector of St. Chad’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, says that religion is able to address the wellness of the whole person in a way that science cannot, and it may have an important, as yet not fully realized, role to play. “I think we bring, as people of faith, a very holistic perspective to healing,” she says. “My question would then be: where is the Christian faith within that movement [of reintegrating faith and psychology]?”
Canon Megan Collings-Moore, chaplain at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo, agrees that religion’s ability to provide meaning addresses a part of being human beyond the reach of medicine. For people trying to cope with mental health problems, she says, it can often help to have someone committed to walking with them “into those dark places, and to reminding them that they are a whole person and made in the image of God, and that they are valued even when it all seems like it’s falling apart.”
The Rev. Claire Miller, an Owen Sound, Ont., priest who has suffered from times of deep clinical depression, says that looking back at how others have supported her through a particularly difficult period has helped her see the work of the Holy Spirit in daily life.
During some of those dark times, she says, she wonders where God is. “It’s only later, when I’m feeling better and stronger, that I can see-gosh, you know, there were those two parishioners who came and just took one look at me and said, ‘You need to see a doctor,’ ” she says. “Those kind of people are ministering to me-I can see that after the fact, and how supportive they have been, and how God has been working through them even when I didn’t see it myself.”