World Mental Health Day (October 10) is a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. A Catholic living with a mental health issue shares her experience and calls for change.
My name is Nicole Cowie and I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder for the past 18 years. For the past four years I have been a full-time mental health/disability activist doing policy advocacy, research, online activism and public speaking on mental health issues.
Until two years ago, when I was outed publicly by someone else in a prayer meeting, I preferred not to have Church folk know of my mental illness.
I’ve experienced pockets of compassion and understanding from individual priests and laypersons alike. However, for me and sad to say for many persons who have mental health issues in our pews, finding understanding and compassion is a hit-and-miss affair.
After experiencing some awful reactions from fellow prayer group members, from persons who could have or would become my family, and from members of the clergy themselves, my stance for over a decade and a half, post my sojourn at the St Ann’s Hospital has been that I would leave the disclosure of my illness to the trained professionals outside the Church and let the Church concentrate on its prayers. I preferred not to ‘miss’ and get hurt once again.
At one point the pain of being rejected because of my illness was so bad, I left the Church and it was only the Eucharist that brought me home.
Dealing with trauma
I have had to rethink my stance since being unceremoniously outed because as I began to do serious activism, I realised that all too often, the Church is the first port of call for persons with mental health issues.
The Church reflects the society in which it exists and Trinidad and Tobago is a traumatised society. We face numerous traumas from crime, broken families, car accidents etc. Trauma is embedded in our DNA as a nation from slavery, indentureship and the colonial system.
Social commentators often lament about our disorderly, indisciplined society that comes from our origins rooted in genocide and the plantation economy.
The Church is made up of everyone who is drawn from our society. Unfortunately, all too often, hurting people hurt people. Hurting people who are part of a Church also will hurt people.
All too often, people in the Church are not equipped with the knowledge of even the basics of mental health first aid but are thrust into situations where they often are the first ports of call for persons who are distressed. This is often the case because of the stigma that exists in openly accessing mental health treatment (although this is slowly changing).
Between lack of adequate and trauma-informed training and simply sometimes a lack of compassion and common sense on the part of Church personnel (laity and clergy), many times the people in our pews who come for aid and succour often end up retraumatised.
Many people are so hurt after that they end up just voting with their feet and walking away from the Church for the sake of self-preservation.
There is hope
I do not want to be a harbinger of doom and gloom where mental health and the Church is concerned.
As I said before, I have experienced pockets of deep compassion and healing. I am heartened by the Catholic News publishing articles openly about mental health. I see bereavement ministries, and I even went to a mental health night recently in a parish. There is a general softening of the divide between mental health and spirituality on the part of the Church.
However, for the average person and even for me, finding the spiritual and practical support needed to cope and thrive with a mental health issue depends on the priest or layperson in whom you choose to confide.
We need to do better as a Church. There needs to be at least training for all Church personnel and ministers in mental health first aid and counselling. I will go one step further to say that given the high levels of trauma in our society, the training for those who are in any position to counsel people must be trauma based.
While clergy and laity in ministries in counselling functions cannot and should not take the place of mental health professionals, they should be trained enough to do no further harm and to know when to refer to a competent professional.
We can do better as a Church to minister to those with mental health issues that can range from depression due to grief to chronic mental illness such as bipolar disorder and depression.
For persons with mental health issues, access to lifegiving spiritual guidance and community within the Church is a source of and a force for great healing.
The question is: Are we as the Church in Trinidad and Tobago fully equipped to minister to those who sit in our pews?