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Intersection of Faith and Mental Illness

There is a lot of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health both inside and outside of the Church. Thankfully, many are working everyday to overcome these stigmas and share the realities of mental illness in a way that will reveal so much to us about ourselves and the Divine love. The days of “pray it away” are slowly passing us and we are opening an authentic dialogue about what it means to be a person of faith who experiences mental health challenges. This conversation starts with the reality that every single one of us has mental health, given to us by God to be tended to.

When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden we saw the Lord tell them they would toil for their food and there would be strife in their relationships (Genesis 3:16 & 19). Today, we know that some of the most stress inducing parts of the human condition come from providing for yourself and your family, as well as developing strong interpersonal relationships. In fact, according to the American Institute of Stress the top five biggest stressors we experience are job pressure, money, health, relationships, and poor nutrition. The things that bring about our stress, anxiety, and depression come from the sin of our first parents.

But the Church has a beautiful teaching about sin that I think is important to recognize. We each have personal sins, but there are also natural sins. This is why the world has things like disease and natural disaster. These horrible things we experience aren’t due to God’s lack of love for us, rather they are a consequence of the first sin. So what does that mean for mental illness? Researchers are working to determine if there is a connection between mental health and things like gut health, climate change, and chronic disease. These factors aren’t about our personal sins directly impacting our mental illnesses, rather they are the consequences of natural sin. Meaning, it isn’t all our fault that we have poor mental health.

So how do we overcome our mental health challenges in our fallen world? As mentioned, just praying it away may not be enough, though it is one of the most important things you can do. There are seven aspects to wellness, one of them is spiritual wellness. It is through spiritual wellness that we contemplate who we are, why we’re here, and how we tap into a higher power when our own strength fails us. God is our partner in this life, he’s here to help us on the journey. Have you ever heard the expression, God never gives you more than you can handle? I prefer the slight modification of God will give you the grace you need to handle anything. On the hardest days, tap into the infinite strength of the Lord. Better yet, tap in before you have to tap out. Spending time in prayer, in Scripture, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ can help us to improve our mental health. There are even mental health ministries popping up in churches, because the Church realizes the importance of ministering to our total wellness: soul, body, AND mind.

I’m a convert to the Catholic Church and I have a history of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder. Because I was raised without a faith tradition, I had no foundation. I went through life not realizing that my body is a gift, bought at a price, to be cared for and used to glorify its Creator (1 Corinthians 6:20). When I discovered I was loved by the King of kings and Lord of lords, it changed my image of myself. A common mantra I use to keep myself grounded is: I am smart, I am beautiful, I am worthy of love. I am a child of God, this body is given to me to bring Him glory, I have to eat!

During my last serious relapse a couple years ago, I went to Confession and realized it had been four months since my last Confession. I’m typically a 4-6 week attendee to the sacrament.  At the end of my confession, the priest’s suggestion to me, “maybe come a little more often.” I could have thunked myself on the head and said DUH! Because it is through the sacraments that we encounter the mercy and love of our Heavenly Father, it is through the sacraments that he freely dumps heaps of grace into our hearts to help us on life’s journey. I hadn’t even realized it, but I was hiding under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15). Not just to the world, but also to the maker of my body (Genesis 3:8). I was hiding my shame of starvation from the only one who could save me from it (Matthew 1:21). In my mental health talks to youth groups, I share how there are two parallel lines running through my life. As my spiritual journey improves, so does my mental health. The more I learn about God, the better I understand myself, the better I appreciate all of His creation.

Although spiritual wellness is not the only piece of the pie, it is critical, it’s the one our secular world forgets most often. A clearly defined recovery and self care program MUST include daily spiritual growth.

Intersection of Faith and Mental IllnessAlexandria Robinson is Catholic millennial by choice, striving to leave the world a little bit better than the way she found it. She seeks to invest in young people as a means of changing the world, giving pragmatic tips to improving total wellness and mental health. A lover of Sacred Scripture she writes online Catholic Bible studies and has recently written a book called A Catholic Millennial’s Guide to the Bible in the hopes of encouraging the spiritual development of her fellow young people. You can find her blogging at www.TheGenesisFeminist.com.

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