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What Mentally Ill Persons Wish their Clergy Understood

By Shirley O’Shea

In the summer of 2016, I experienced a profound bipolar depression that made daily functioning for me impossible. The breakdown — this word best describes my experience — had been coming for years, and now I was totally incapacitated, barely able to eat, sleep, or speak.

After I had been in the psychiatric hospital for a few days, I requested a pastoral visit. I was still able to reach out to God, or at least to ask for someone else to do so for me. The hospital was far from my home and so my priest asked a priest from a church near the hospital to visit me.

The nearby priest smiled broadly throughout his visit. He told me that he knew, indeed the Holy Spirit was telling him, that great things were in store for me. I had once believed that great things, high achievements, were in my future, and my teachers and professors had predicted the same thing, years ago. Ever since, I had tried to fulfill their, and my, expectations. But now, it was all I could do to rise from my bed in the morning and feel the air against my skin.

The priest asked if I wanted him to pray for me, and I heartily assented. He began his prayer in English, and then started to make utterances in another language that sounded rhythmic and throaty. I wondered at this, and after the priest concluded his prayer, I asked him if he had been praying in Hebrew. “No,” he said. “I was praying in tongues. Are you comfortable with that?”

I was shaken by the experience, but in my diminished state was afraid to tell the priest that, No, I did not like to hear praying in tongues. I wanted to hear something I would understand. I had never heard anyone pray for me, or anyone else, in glossolalia, and I was frightened. I wished that the priest had asked me at the outset if I had ever been prayed over in tongues, or better yet, I wished he had kept to English. It seemed the priest was more interested in an esoteric religious practice than in providing me with assurance of God’s presence.

As someone who has lived with bipolar type 2 disorder for the past 35 years, I am pleased to have witnessed significant improvements in the understanding of mental illness, including in the church and its leadership. Many in the church understand there is a large biological component to mental illness, and that medications may offer considerable relief from suffering – so spiritual interventions are not sufficient to help an afflicted believer recover. Indeed, there are clergy serving congregations faithfully while doing their best to manage the symptoms and pain of their own mental illness. God’s people are not immune to disorders of the brain.

Ponder the brain for a moment. I consider it to be the apex of God’s creation. The human brain is like the universe in its seeming infinitude of capacity, with nearly 90 billion neurons compared to the 100 billion galaxies in the universe. The brain features axons constantly firing information to dendrites, forming neural pathways that affect the way we experience and act in the world. This miracle of biology processes nearly unlimited information, and drives all behavior. The heart is a magnificent organ, pumping blood every moment of every day of our lives, even before we are born. But it does so only because the medulla, a part of the reptilian brain, directs it to do so. The brain is gorgeous and intricate, yet subject to malfunction and disease.

So, the first thing a clergyperson should understand is the astonishing complexity of the organ implicated in our suffering. Persons with disorders such as major depression, bipolarity and anxiety are experiencing disorders of the prefrontal cortex — the advanced section at the front of our brains — as well as of the limbic system, part of the mammalian brain. Individuals with schizophrenia suffer from disorders that involve practically all areas of the brain.

Just as a person with a herniated disc does not savor his pain and use it as a means to be coddled, a person with a mental illness does not wallow in his pain and wish to manipulate others to meet their own needs. A long time ago, an otherwise well-meaning priest who knew about my illness said I was “captivated by looking into the abyss.” While a person with a psychiatric illness may appear fixated on her painful feelings, it is much more likely that she is trying to make sense of them and figure out how to overcome them. So, clergy, as others, must be careful not to assume that the mentally ill individual is deriving any self-centered or pathological pleasure in feeling ill.

Clergy should understand that people with mental illness are mostly likely very scared, for numerous reasons. Their brains are doing some horrible things to them. They may feel so deeply depressed that they fear they may never recover, and therefore may never be able to make a living, raise their children, or be a fully present and responsible spouse. They may have unwanted, intrusive thoughts that are disturbing at best, terrifying at worst.

If a person seeking spiritual counsel from you discloses such thoughts, please try to respond with calm understanding. Assure them God is with them even when they have such fears, and that while the fears are not permanent, God’s love is. During my 2016 illness, I was in anguish thinking I might never be able to raise my then-9-year-old son. My depression was so deep that it did not even occur to me to ask for God’s help in recovering for the sake of my son. Everything seemed wrong about me and my world, and I did not want to risk God’s saying no. But God’s love and mercy were with me, and I have been able to raise my son in a way that, for the most part, I feel good about.

This brings us to one of the most painful and confounding aspects of being a Christian with mental illness — the experience of the perceived absence and silence of God. When interacting with individuals in this situation, clergy and the church must be the embodied presence of God.

When I look back on my illness, I recall wondering where God was and why he was withholding himself from me, but I also knew that God was so intimately close that I could not perceive his presence. Just as you cannot see your own heart or lungs beating or breathing, I was unable to see God moving in my life. My mind was in turmoil, but God was with me, slowly working in my brain and my spirit to bring about my recovery.

So please remind the mentally ill, again and again and again, that God is with them, but for reasons we simply cannot know, it is often terribly unclear what he is doing in our lives at certain times — particularly during episodes of mental illness.

Sometimes God’s people receive a message from clergy or fellow believers that the Christian life is one of uninterrupted joy. But the authors of the Scriptures knew better. Please share with mentally ill Christians passages from the Psalms of Lament and other writings in the Bible that show that anguish, inner darkness (which is fear) and the felt absence of God have been experienced by some of his greatest servants — above all his Son. However, please do not ask us to read the Book of Job. God’s answers in the whirlwind are not quite what we need at such times.

While a person struggling with acute mental illness will likely not be able to hear this, someone beginning to recover may benefit by hearing that living with and recovering from mental illness may confer considerable wisdom, about themselves, other human beings, and the nature of God. This growth will enable them to be more open to God and his call to service, and more loving and compassionate with their own family, their church family, and indeed with strangers.

Human inter-connectedness is crucial for the mentally ill. Isolation is quite literally dangerous. Hospital and home visits are probably more welcome than clergy realize. Consider calling a recovering person once a week to check in and see how she is doing. Do not be discouraged if it takes a few months for her to start saying, “Well, I’m doing a little better now…” Recovery from a severe episode is slow, and hard work.

Last, please support the work of psychotherapy. Do not assume that psychotherapists are anti-religion. Many see religious faith as integral to a person’s wellness and are completely respectful of a person’s beliefs. Remember that psychotherapists have also witnessed the psychic damage of toxic religious practice and are careful to monitor for its presence in their clients. But, as my Jewish secular humanist therapist has said of belief in God, “It’s kept people on the planet.” If a therapist is not respectful of a believer’s faith, then he or she is not worthy of their license.

Psychotherapy is a journey. It is not navel-gazing, or pure self-exploration. It is more things than I can write here. It is a process of gaining a richer, fuller meaning of what life and relationships require of us and offer us. It can be searing because the truth has the capacity to burn and hence purify us. It can be joyful because we learn to see the good in ourselves. One of the greatest things a clergyperson can do for someone with mental illness is to affirm that goodness.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer residing in Oneonta, N.Y., with her husband, Geoff, and their son, Jeremy. She has worked as a paralegal, elementary school teacher and newspaper reporter


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