“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus admonishes Mary, the sister of Lazarus: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” (Lk. 10:41)  Normally, when we read these words, we interpret this Gospel passage as a simple and straightforward lesson about being so preoccupied with the small things in life that we miss our true purpose.

Yet during a period of crisis they can seem like difficult and even painful words.

This is even more true for those that were already wrestling with anxiety and/or depression prior as a normal part of their daily lives. For the more than 19% of the U.S. population that suffer from anxiety disorders, we don’t choose worry and anxiety—it chooses us. The same goes for the 7.1% of the population who has experienced an episode of major depression.

I stumbled across some thoughts that I had written about anxiety and depression a few years ago, and given the current environment, I thought it might be a good time to re-share them.

The Invisible Crowd

Think about those percentages above for a second. It means that if you were sitting in a pew at Sunday Mass with eight other people, there is a good chance that one or two of them suffer from anxiety disorders. There is a 50% chance that there is also someone else in that pew who either is struggling with major depression or has at some time in the past. Now, add a host of other possible mental illnesses to the mix.

Multiply it by the number of pews in the parish, times masses on a Sunday...you get the idea. I guarantee that mental illness affects someone you know, someone you love...maybe even you.

I know because I am one of those 19%.

You might never see it. I don’t seem anxious and worried. But don’t let that fool you. Anxiety is something I’ve learned to live with—to live through.

For those who haven’t experienced it, it can be difficult to understand. Of course, everyone has normal worries and anxieties—the kind the Lord is addressing in the Gospel today. These are not what I am talking about. As the National Institute of Mental Health puts it:
“Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can actually be beneficial in some situations. For some people, however, anxiety can become excessive, and while the person suffering may realize it is excessive they may also have difficulty controlling it and it may negatively affect their day-to-day living.”
For those who suffer with anxiety disorders, the realization that we have anxiety and worry that we have a hard time controlling can not only be a challenge to our day-to-day living, but also a serious challenge to our faith. If we misunderstand passages like the one in today’s Gospel we can end up feeling like we have somehow failed spiritually...that our relationship with God should make us ‘strong enough’ to ‘just get over it’. The same goes for depression and other metal illnesses.
If you’ve ever felt like that, the rest of this post is for you. I am going to try to dispel a few myths about faith and mental illness. If not, feel free to listen in, as I guarantee that if mental illness hasn’t yet affected someone close to you, it probably will.

Myth #1: “I have anxiety (depression, etc.) because I lack faith”

Let’s be clear: anxiety, depression and other mental problems are illnesses, not choices. They are not the result of beliefs. Just as we wouldn’t think that someone has cancer or heart disease because they lack faith, neither should we think that this is true of mental illness.

In fact, it is often the opposite. You have probably known people who suffered from serious illnesses like cancer that are people of great faith. Their trust in God is part of what helped them to get through difficult times...but it didn’t magically make the illness go away. The same is true of mental illness.

Myth #2: “I don’t need treatment, I just need to pray more”

Prayer is important. It is a key part of our relationship with God. Yet we have to be open to God’s answers—and those answers usually involve a response on our part.

There is an old story about a man who refuses to leave his house even though he knows a big storm is coming. The sheriff knocks on his door and tells him to evacuate, but he replies: “Jesus will save me” and stays put. The storm hits and flood waters rise around his house, so much that he ends up having to retreat to the second floor. Outside, he sees that a fireman has come in rescue boat and is waving to him. Again he replies: “Jesus will save me” and stays put.

Eventually, the water rises so much that he has to climb up to the roof. A Coast Guard helicopter spots him and calls down to him over a loudspeaker, yet he waves them away, yelling through the rain and wind: “Jesus will save me.” The man is finally swept up in the rising waters and dies. Upon meeting Jesus he cries out in disappointment “Lord, I trusted you! Why didn’t you save me?” Jesus simply replies: “I sent you a car, a boat and a helicopter...what more did you want me to do?”

God hears and answers your prayers. Often he answers with caring family members, doctors and medical treatment. The great medieval theologians had a saying that “grace perfects nature”, meaning that God chooses to pour out His love through His creation and not in opposition to it. We tend to imagine dramatic and mystical answers to our requests. God, however, chooses to answer primarily through natural means. Asking for a miracle is fine (and understandable!), but don’t be afraid to accept the healing that He offers through the work of psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors.

Myth #3: “My anxiety (depression, etc.) is a cross that I have to carry alone”

Even Jesus didn’t carry his cross alone. When he fell on the way to Calvary, Simon of Cyrene was there to carry it for him.  You are not stronger than Jesus, and God does not expect more from you than he expected from His own Son.

It is true that the people around you might not be capable of completely understanding what you are going through. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be an enormous source of support. Though you may at times feel alone and isolated, God has made you part of a family that extends from here to Heaven. You are not being a ‘burden’ when you make use of that great gift—you are doing exactly what God has created you for by allowing other people to love you.

Myth #4: “My anxiety (depression, etc.) is a defect of character that I should be ashamed of”

Because your illness is not a choice, it is no more reflective of your moral or spiritual character than your hair color or where you were born. Yes, mental illness can make our choices more complicated...but like all of the other circumstances in your life, God knows the truth of what is in your heart. He can clearly see the difference between you and your illness, even when you can’t.

And He is not ashamed of having you as His son or daughter.

Likewise, you should not be ashamed of yourself either.

A Final Thought: Breaking the Silence

Too often, mental health is a problem that people don’t want to talk about. Yet as disciples, we have a moral obligation not to remain silent. Anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses can be every bit as debilitating as any physical illness...they can even become terminal illnesses. The suffering of those who struggle with mental illness cries out to God and demands our attention.

So let’s talk about it. Let’s try to eliminate the stigma associated with it, at least in our own families and community.

And let’s pray that those people in our community who are struggling might find in us a compassionate heart and a source of strength when theirs might be faltering.

Be gracious to me, LORD, for I am in distress;
affliction is wearing down my eyes,
my throat and my insides.
My life is worn out by sorrow,
and my years by sighing.
My strength fails in my affliction;
my bones are wearing down.
But I trust in you, LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
My destiny is in your hands
(Psalm 31:10-11, 15-16a)

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