July 28, 2023

Caring for mental health ‘is just a good way to live’—and faith can help

Jack Schmitz will become the next executive director of the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Organization when Bruce Scifres retires on Aug. 31. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Kile Stevens leads the congregation in the responsorial psalm at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianapolis on Sept. 24, 2017, during the archdiocese’s first Mass for those affected by mental illness. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

(Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of articles addressing mental health, including the role of faith in seeking wholeness. Future topics include marriage and family, teens, children, addictions and the role of spiritual direction.)

By Natalie Hoefer

Tom Renken leads a full and fulfilling life. The father of six is active in his parish, and he is co-founder and co-leader of the Celebrate Marriage ministry with Marcy, his wife of 21 years.

Renken also struggles with depression.

“I remember it distinctly kicking in when I was in fourth grade—there was no particular event that happened to cause it,” he recalls. “It’s been a close companion ever since.”

Like Renken, Kile Stevens says there was no one incident he could point to that caused his grades to slip in his junior and senior years of high school.

“I always did well academically,” he says. “I chalked it up to just being ready to move on. But things just got worse in college. That’s when the depression started showing up. It made it impossible for me to function.”

Psychotherapist Christine Turo-Shields, owner of Kenosis Counseling Center in Greenwood, puts it bluntly: “If you are depressed or anxious and it’s affecting your life, you have a mental health issue.” (Related: Mental health resources in central and southern Indiana)

Whether mild or chronic, such issues are no cause for shame, she adds, noting that “a health issue is a health issue, no matter where it occurs in the body.”

When it comes to treating mental health issues, she says, “From a research standpoint, the best treatment is a combination of therapy and medication.”

But Turo-Shields, a Catholic, also has a saying: “When all else falls away, the only thing that remains is faith.”

In this article, Turo-Shields and two other Catholic therapists will share their insights on mental health issues and the difference that the Catholic faith can make in addressing this illness—a reality that Renken and Stevens have both experienced.

‘A condition as opposed to a personal flaw’

There are myriad causes for mental health issues, says Turo-Shields. Some triggers are external—relationship issues, the death of a loved one, a stressful life change, a traumatic experience.

“Some [people] have a genetic predisposition or a chemical imbalance,” she adds. “It’s like, ‘All this time I thought something was wrong with me because I couldn’t get rid of these thoughts.’ But with depression and anxiety, the distorted and negative thinking are symptoms of a condition as opposed to a personal flaw you can control.”

Renken can relate. His ongoing depression was diagnosed as dysthymia, or persistent depressive disorder.

“It’s like I’m always at a three or four out of 10 on the happiness scale,” he says.

Sometimes mental health issues may arise at certain stages in life, such as postpartum depression.

“This is not a character flaw or a weakness,” says Pauline Laue, a licensed mental health counselor at Central Psychological Services, LLC, in Indianapolis. “A new mom can experience symptoms of depression that interfere with her ability to enjoy her baby and her life.”

She says hormonal changes, lack of support, stress, breastfeeding complications, past trauma or difficult childhood experiences are among a few issues that can exacerbate this condition.

“It becomes crucial then for these moms to remember that you are not alone, you are not to blame, and with help you will get better,” Laue advises. “Most importantly, be gentle and give yourself grace.”

Middle-age is another example of a life stage that can create mental health issues, says Turo-Shields.

“Oftentimes, individuals get to that point in their lives when they look back and question, ‘Why is this happening? Is this really how I want to live? Is this really all there is to life? Am I happy?’ ” she says. “This struggle may be prompted by some external life stressor or circumstance, or it may be an internal wrestling, questioning one’s purpose or even very existence.

“Some call it a mid-life crisis, but explored through the lens of faith, it becomes an opportunity to examine the ‘dark night of the soul.’ These times offer us an opportunity to deeply explore the meaning of the suffering in our lives and consider how God is unfolding our path of life.”

‘Fight or flee’

Mental health issues can manifest in numerous ways. For instance, symptoms of anxiety can be physical, like an increased heart rate or tension in the body, says Dr. Joseph Molitor.

“Anxiety is like a person’s emotional alarm system going off saying danger or threat—we respond with fight or flee,” says Molitor, a Catholic psychologist at Whole Hearts Psychology in Lawrenceburg.

“Anxiety can look like going away, avoiding what’s triggering the anxiety. But it can also look like irritability and frustration as the person responds to the threat by fighting back and trying to overcome it.”

Renken’s symptoms tended toward avoidance, or escapism behavior, “motivated by perfectionism and scarcity—the feeling that I’ll never be enough, have enough, failure to measure up,” he says. “It is definitely fed by stress,” he adds, to the point that he contemplated—but never attempted—suicide.

“Counseling helped me to identify what my issues were,” he says. “Being able to name the situation is a first step in recognizing the errors in my thinking when [depression] happens.”

Stevens describes his initial depressive symptoms as “thinking more slowly, not taking care of myself or doing the things I needed to do, hyper-somnia—sleeping all the time, suicidal thoughts.”

Then he became hyper-energized or “manic.” Stevens didn’t sleep for two days and started hearing voices. He was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with bipolar-1 disorder, in which moods swing from very high to very low. Some experience psychosis, like voices or visions.

Chronic mental diseases like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia require medication for daily functioning. Therapy can help as well.

“Psychotherapy has been very helpful [with] managing my symptoms in a natural sense,” says Stevens. “It provides coping skills to help you deal with the illness and make things better so you can hopefully deal with daily life.”

While he calls medication and therapy his “main lines of defense,” Stevens admits he “wouldn’t be here without my faith.”

‘Psychology, informed by the Catholic faith’

“Faith is a huge piece” of addressing mental health issues, says Laue. “I firmly believe that, and that’s why I’m here practicing as a Catholic faith-based counselor.

“With a faith-based approach, you can look at an individual from a more holistic sense—body, mind and spirit.”

Molitor agrees. In fact, the mission of Whole Heart Psychology is “to restore hearts and relationships through psychology, informed by the Catholic faith.”

“Counseling is not a replacement for the need for God,” he explains. “It’s not like you do therapy and forget your spiritual life. Working at a natural level can pave the way for a better spiritual life. It’s helpful for Catholics to see the integration between the two.”

Incorporating faith into therapy “offers a connection to something beyond us,” says Laue. “It gives a person hope. I do think working from that framework is just a complete, fuller approach to treating a client.”

Turo-Shields welcomes bringing faith into therapy if a client wishes. She notes that the Greek word “kenosis” in her counseling center’s name refers to “Christ emptying himself and taking human form” (Phil 2:7).

“Divine providence is ever present, regardless of what cross you carry,” she says. “It’s about reframing the cross given to you—not just thinking, ‘Life is unfair,’ but, ‘This is a heavy cross, but this too shall pass.’ ”

That doesn’t mean faith alone will solve a problem, Turo-Shields notes.

“If my appendix bursts, I’m not just going to sit and pray about it, I’m going to the emergency room,” she says. “But the hand of divine providence is in that doctor taking care of the problem.”

‘This very difficult cross’

Renken sought a Catholic counselor to help cope with his depression. He says his faith continues to help him.

“You think about the world differently when you know you’re loved,” says the convert to Catholicism. He and his family are members of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood.

He finds solace in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s eighth step of spiritual discernment “about reminding yourself that the desolation will only last a little longer.” And he finds that “being in community helps, as I’m at my worst when I’m alone and isolated.”

Stevens is also a convert to Catholicism. He worships at the Oratory of SS. Philomena and Cecilia in Oak Forest, where he finds “consolation in the contemplativeness of the Latin Mass.”

In addition to medication and therapy, he finds help in coping with his mental health through many facets of the faith: frequently receiving the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation, praying the rosary and embracing Marian devotion (“especially Our Lady of Sorrows”). He also receives spiritual direction (a topic for deeper discussion in a future article in this series. See article on page 12 for general information on spiritual direction).

Stevens firmly believes in the role of faith in addressing mental health issues—so much so that he helped start the archdiocese’s Mental Health Ministry as part of the Office of Human Life and Dignity in 2017.

“I knew there needed to be some sort of ministry to help people spiritually who struggle with this very difficult cross,” he says. “People need to know they’re not alone.”

‘Taking care of mental health is a good way to live’

By sharing about their struggles, Renken and Stevens are doing their part to remove the stigma surrounding mental health.

“When people talk about their mental health problems and how they’re working on it, that normalizes [the topic],” notes Molitor.

Turo-Shields states it simply: “Mental health issues are health issues.

“Taking care of mental health is just a good way to live,” she adds. “The more we learn those skills early on, the more we can make healthy decisions.”

Renken admits coping with mental health issues—whether through therapy, medication or both—“is not always simple.

“But when I remember—when I remember,” he emphasizes, “faith does wonderful things.”

(Those experiencing thoughts of suicide or a mental health or substance use crisis should call or text 988 to reach the 24/7 national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. A list of Catholic-informed counselors can also be found at lnkiy.in/MentalHealthMinistry and lnkiy.in/CounselorList.)

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