It is Important for Catholics to Understand Mental Illness


It is especially important for Catholics to understand the causes of mental illness, instead of judging those who suffer as lazy or at fault for some reason or other. It is even worse when believers deny their own need for help. When people cannot understand these unseen illnesses, they simply fall back on age-old admonishments,

Well, we all have our cross to bear.

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

You’d feel better if you went to Mass more often.

What do you have to be depressed about?

Have you been praying/ going to confession?

Volunteer and you won’t have time to brood.

No one actually believes people are to blame if they need eyeglasses to read or insulin to fight diabetes but they still heap abuse on people with depression or anxiety as if these diseases were signs of a weak character or a lack of faith. Triggers for mental illness can be as simple as increased stress or a lack of sleep to a more serious reaction to a traumatic event such as war or abuse, anything which throws off the chemical balance in the brain. Some people just need medication to balance their serotonin levels to heal mental illness just like some people need insulin.

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The Bucket Theory Explains Mental Illness

The stress vulnerability bucket theory is a way to explain why some people experience anxiety, depression, paranoia or a psychotic episode, while other people seem to handle life with ease. I heard this illustration explained at a conference more than 10 years ago and I find that it is still the easiest way to explain why some people slip into mental illness.

Think of each person’s ability to handle stress as a bucket with holes in the bottom. Some people, from stable home backgrounds with relaxed, cheerful temperaments, might have a large bucket to handle stress while others, who are high-strung or perhaps wounded from child abuse or an unstable home life as children, might have a smaller bucket.

Now, imagine stress as water filling up each bucket. If a lot of water comes into a bucket, in other words, if a person experiences a great deal of stress, then the bucket can overflow. People with big buckets, or a low-level of vulnerability, can cope with more stress while people with smaller buckets can cope with less stress. Many situations in life stress us all out, like relationship problems, money worries or family problems.

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If you manage stress by using helpful ways of coping, then this gets rid of the stress in the bucket by punching holes in the bottom of the bucket. Helpful coping would be an activity such as talking through your problems with someone or getting a good nights sleep, going for a walk or taking a long hot bath to relax your muscles. The best way for me to de-stress physically, mentally and emotionally, is to relax in prayer or meditation, the kind that leads me into deep rest.

Really, it is not important if your bucket is large or small. The key to living a balanced, ‘sane’ life is to keep the holes in the bottom of your bucket open so stress can flow out. Everyone would benefit from some kind of therapy to understand how they unconsciously plug up the holes in their buckets. And sometimes people also need medication, especially if they need help sleeping.

Becoming whole and holy is a messy process, one which no one can tackle alone. Let’s take advantage of all the help we can get, everyone from confessors to counsellors, even if that means seeking out help from a mental health professional.

Does this topic seem completely irrelevant to you? Consider this fact:

One in four people suffers from mental illness sometime in their life.

Think of three friends.

If they all seem fine, looks like you’re the one.

connecting with theology is a verb

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