Resisting the stigma of mental illness

Dr. Michelle Connor Harris serves as the Clinical Director for St. Raphael Counseling.

Imagine that you live in ancient Rome and you are feeling sad and hopeless.  The Colosseum holds no appeal, you have no desire to see your friends, and you just want to sleep.  Your physician diagnoses you with melancholia, known today as depression, which is a good start.  This diagnosis of melancholia is a more advanced understanding than the centuries-old belief that all mental illness is the result of evil spirits.

What Roman remedies are available? Your doctor might prescribe a program of vigorous exercise and playing games with your family, which sounds reasonable – maybe even pleasant – depending on your family.  This ancient physician may also prescribe shaving your head and rubbing it with herb-infused oils, which is less pleasant – especially if you’re a woman.  Following this guidance, everyone now knows you’ve got an “issue” because you’re walking around bald and smelling of juniper berries!  If these remedies fail, the alternatives are much less pleasant: expect to be chained up, starved and flogged.  Yikes!

Physicians continued to advocate restraining and starving patients into the modern age, despite many advances in the understanding of mental illness in the ancient world.  Unfortunately, this progress was significantly set back when Western Europe was devastated by famine and plague in the 14th and 15th centuries.  Significant religious and political upheavals resulted in a loss of intellectual capital that had been cultivated for hundreds of years.   Many authorities reverted to the belief that mental illness was caused by demonic possession.  People were “exorcised” with the winning combination of prayer and torture, sometimes resulting in death.

Many of these ideas, and the accompanying stigma, lingered and migrated with European settlers to the New World – and we have been playing catch-up ever since.

Now imagine that you feel those symptoms of melancholia today.  Would you talk to a doctor?  Would you tell your family or friends?  If you feel hesitant to talk to anyone about your experience, it is partly due to history and partly due to human nature.  We can thank our ancestors for creating fear that we might be prescribed extreme remedies like being tied up starved and beaten.  We can thank our human nature for the desire to fit in and the very visceral rejection of any sense of difference or abnormality.

People have a deep need to be accepted by those around them, beginning with our family.  If we are rejected by those who feed, house, and clothe us, we might not survive.  Humans are wired to please those around us to ensure our survival.  As parents, we want our children to fit in and be liked by teachers and peers, because we know how important it is to their survival out in the world.  The U.S. is a very competitive society that demands complex relationships and behaviors to remain successful. The thought that our children might struggle to be successful in that society can be very frightening to parents, especially when we fee ill-equipped to help them.

Fear is a powerful motivator.  In the case of getting help for mental illness, the fear of social stigma can leave us paralyzed and unwilling to act.

We can change that.  Mental illness is a fact of life and we are professionals who are here to help.  Those ancient remedies are long gone.  Let’s be thankful that we live in a time and place where mental health professionals no longer employ torture, but rather use empirically-based methods that always begin with talking.

At St. Raphael Counseling, we work at the intersection of the psychological and spiritual – with an in-depth knowledge and understanding of what it means to be Christian in an increasingly secular world.  We can help you find hope and healing.  Call us at 720-377-1359.

We also invite you to please join us for a special conference for parents and teens ages 13 and older on Sept. 26 at St. Thomas More parish.  We will share information about diagnosing mental illness, helpful tips for managing stress for students, and guidance for parents of teens.  We will also remember those who have died by suicide.  Go to our website at and hit the events tab at the top to register.  We look forward to seeing you there!

COMING UP: How can you tell if a problem is spiritual or psychological?

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How can you tell if a problem is spiritual or psychological?

Healing isn’t just a retreat experience — it’s much deeper

While it seems that culture still tends to fight the stigma of mental illness, Catholic psychologists say that it is lessening. A giant step.

However, for Catholics, because the spiritual and psychological have so much overlap, distinguishing a problem as a spiritual one or a human one can be difficult — and even then, they’re still very connected. Healing is actually a much more dynamic process, and one that God includes us in through human means.

Healing isn’t just a retreat

“Generally, God uses the normal means for a person to heal. Sometimes, there’s a misconception that healing takes place at a retreat,” said Malise Lagarde Harold, director of the Catholic Counseling Service in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

In her practice, Harold has seen people misunderstand healing and feeling happy. Healing, and growing in happiness, take work, which doesn’t always feel good.

“We can associate healing with feeling good — being happy and feeling good are two different things,” Harold said.

She pointed out the tendency people have to confuse God’s voice in their human emotions, when emotions are just that: part of being human. The negative emotions that people may experience in healing or in making good decisions aren’t a solid indicator of where God wants us to be.

“God doesn’t speak to us through feelings, he speaks to us through the intellect; just because something feels good to them, that’s probably not a good way to confirm God’s voice. True happiness comes by way of virtue. When you make good and virtuous decisions and actions consistently, you’ll be happy, but it doesn’t always feel good,” Harold said.

“There’s a huge component of feelings, that, ‘If I don’t feel good, there must be something wrong,’ I think people confuse that. We have to remember that not all pain is bad. Someone can experience pain when he has done something wrong and that pain is a function of a properly formed conscience,” she added.

God doesn’t speak to us through feelings, he speaks to us through the intellect; just because something feels good to them, that’s probably not a good way to confirm God’s voice. True happiness comes by way of virtue.”

True peace is wholeness, but that is not always experienced as emotional peace.

“You might feel terrible, but you did the good and virtuous thing; instead of falling into negative rumination, you chose well,” Harold said. “There’s this week to week, ‘How did we work on that,’ forming habits and ways of thinking. When you’re mentally healthy, there’s more room for grace because grace builds on nature.”

“I think it’s important that Catholics understand that we have psychological problems, too, and it’s important to recognize that God uses the normal means of healing,” Harold added.

Spiritual or psychological?

So how can you tell when a problem is more spiritual or psychological? How do you approach it? Do you need a spiritual director, a therapist, or both?

“Spiritual direction is more about where God is working in your life. With psychology, we help people be more aware of how God can help them find healing,” said Dr. Jim Langley, a licensed psychologist at St. Raphael Counseling in Denver.

Dr. Langley said that often, it’s best to have a spiritual director as well as a therapist — and sometimes, they may even work together. Especially when the line between the two is overlapping.

But there are ways to tell which is which, Dr. Langley said.

“What makes distinguishing [spiritual from psychological] is that evil can mimic psychological symptoms, when really the core issue is something spiritual. But the more common case, it’s two sides of the same coin. More often than not, they need both spiritual and psychological healing,” Dr. Langley said.

When you’re mentally healthy, there’s more room for grace because grace builds on nature.”

“Evil gets into our emotional wounds, that’s the most common one,” Dr. Langley added. “[But] if someone’s accessing the sacraments and deliverance prayer, and [it doesn’t go away], there’s a psychological problem that needs to be dealt with first.”

He also said that spiritual issues tend to be contained into one area of a person’s life, whereas psychological problems “affect them across the board.”

Like Harold, he stressed that healing best takes place in both realms — but it’s usually not a miracle cure.

“In order to address a spiritual/psychological wound, the first thing you need is God’s grace. And he also gives you the courage to do something about it. A huge part of healing is you participating in it,” Dr. Langley said.

Seeking help

Both Harold and Dr. Langley agreed that many people wait too long to get psychological help — and that these issues can be healed with the right treatment.

“I think when you have a problem, and nothing else has worked, and it’s still there, they’re waiting until they can’t feel that way anymore, they should get help sooner,” Dr. Langley said.

Some of the most common issues people should seek help for are anxiety, depression, grief work, trauma, marriage and family counseling, as well as two issues that are more common than people realize: perfectionism and pornography.

Perfectionism can become a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder or scrupulosity, said Dr. Langley. And therapy for pornography, along with spiritual help, can treat the underlying emotional wounds that led a person to the addiction in the first place.

In order to address a spiritual/psychological wound, the first thing you need is God’s grace. And he also gives you the courage to do something about it. A huge part of healing is you participating in it.”

“It’s hard because that’s a very taboo thing. People mention it at pulpits, and yet, people are so reluctant to get actual help. It’s a huge issue. Psychology is pretty darn good at dealing with these issues,” Dr. Langley said.

There’s no shame in therapy, and it’s something Catholics should seek to better live their vocation.

“Counseling can help individuals, married couples, and families to live their vocation to love more fully. This is certainly true for persons experiencing addictions, compulsive behaviors, grief and loss, and difficulties coping with life’s stressful events,” said Dr. Linda Montagna, executive director of Regina Caeli Clinical Services.

There’s also no shame in medication when it’s necessary; however, Harold suggests that it be used with more severe cases of mental illness.

“Research shows that medication for depression, for example, is no better than a placebo. It is a bit like a Band-Aid. The problem is that there is a lack of understanding of the cause of both anxiety and depression. Changing the perspective on the issue [that causes someone anxiety or depression] will remedy the disorder,” Harold said.

“Medication has a place, though, and should be considered for the more severe cases of mental illness where potential harm, injury or death come into play or those psychotic states which can benefit from some chemical stabilization.”

For more information on St. Raphael Counseling, visit For more information on Regina Caeli Counseling, visit