Mental Health and the Church

I’ve been depressed for almost 13 years. I have what the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD), or Dysthymia. Basically, I’m always sad. The symptoms that “qualify” someone for a Major Depressive Disorder need to be present for at least two weeks. In order to “qualify” for PDD, the symptoms need to be there for at least two years. Throughout these 13 years, my relationship with God and the Church has grown and evolved. My depression has shaped my relationship with God and has greatly influenced how I experience going to church.
I spent many years “trying out” different churches, all of them leaving a bad taste in my mouth. It was very difficult walking into a church where everything and everyone looked perfect and perfectly happy. The people leading the music in the front of the church were all well-groomed and always smiling. The worst part is was that all the songs were about how great God is and how wonderful life is was once we accepted God’s love in our hearts.
I can’t be in churches like that. They amplified my sense of brokenness and made me feel like I a was reject because I don’t experience God that way. I didn’t feel like I was allowed to be sad there, I didn’t feel welcomed. God is my strength, my hope, and my constant companion. But, even though my faith infuses me with the courage to keep going, it has not decreased my suffering.
I now worship at saint benedict’s table. The day that I discovered it, I immediately knew that I was at home. This was a contemplative church that touched my brain and my heart all at the same time. This church made me feel like it was okay not to be perfect. This church acknowledged that life was not always easy and that we do suffer, even as Christians. We sang songs about how great God is, but we also sang about doubt and suffering.
This church gives me peace. Everyone is open about their hardships and their pain, even our priest. I don’t feel alone in my pain because my church community is walking along with me. We are struggling together. It feels more honest, more true, more welcoming and I don’t have to hide who I am. What a relief to be given the permission to exist and to be accepted how I am.
Saint benedict’s table also has an Emotional Wellness group. This group gathers twice a month and serves as a support for people struggling with mental health issues or who know people that are struggling. For long periods of time, I could not attend this group regularly. However, despite not always being able to attend, it was still great to know that it was there. It made me feel like I was someone that mattered, someone that the church cared about because it wasn’t trying to hide all of the people who struggled with mental illness.
If a church asked me how they can be more welcoming and accommodating to people with mental health issues, I would encourage them to acknowledge suffering as a normal part of life. I would suggest that the church make room for people to get together to talk about mental health openly and not hide behind faith. Ask people how they are doing with the intent and the desire to really hear the truth and to be open to listen.

Annick Boulet has a Masters degree in Social Psychology and currently teaches Personal Growth for the Nathanael program with the Archdiocese of St-Boniface. She hopes to continue pursuing a career as a public speaker on the issues surrounding mental health and spirituality.

I think that people are often afraid to ask because they feel like they will then have to try and fix the other person. I have never met someone struggling with their mental health who wanted to be fixed (by anyone other than a specialist, maybe). People just want to be heard and listened to. I don’t like having to walk this sadness alone. I would love to just be able to talk about how sad I feel and have someone listen. There is not much more that I want besides being treated with love, respect, and dignity. And to be honest, you can’t fix someone anyway. Let God work that out.
Finally, I would ask people not to be put off by behaviour that seems out of the norm. If someone leaves suddenly in the middle of church, or runs off immediately after church, or displays a behaviour seems odd or unfriendly to you, realize that maybe that person is struggling with something. Instead of judging them, next time you see them, ask them if they are okay. Most likely, that person is just trying to cope in the best way that they can.


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