Faith and Mental Health

Healthwatch Essex is a member of the Essex Faith Covenant, a group of organisations committed to promoting tolerance and understanding of different faiths and working collaboratively. In this blog post, Hannah Kelly, Lead Chaplain for Essex Police and chair of Essex Faith Covenant, discusses her experiences of OCD and faith as a practising Catholic.

Trigger warning:  Mentions of suicidal thoughts

I’m Hannah Kelly, I’m 34 and have been a practising Catholic all of my life.  I have always been actively involved in parish life as an altar server, reader, Eucharistic Minister, Catechist, as well as serving on parish councils.  Since leaving school, I was a volunteer at Walsingham House Catholic Youth Retreat Centre and Brentwood Catholic Youth Service, gained my Theology degree and worked as a School Chaplain and am now Lead Chaplain for Essex Police.

You can probably tell that my faith is very important to me.

I also have diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a mental health condition I can date back to the age of 8.  I wanted to write this article as I have struggled with being a person of (what I believe is a strong) faith, whilst also having this disorder and I wondered if other people suffering/struggling with mental illnesses such as OCD, anxiety, depression, etc. have had similar difficulties and may benefit from reading this.

I hear people often remark, “I’m a bit OCD” because they like things straight, clean, in a certain way.  That is not OCD.  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is just that – a Disorder.  It is not a preference or a like, but an illness which can massively impact someone’s life.  It can manifest in many different ways, but I will give an overview of how OCD has affected and still affects me.

My OCD began and remains a “checking” OCD.  From around the age of 8, as far as I can remember, I began to check things were safe in the house.  I can date it as my little sister (a toddler then) was moved into my room to share and I was always worried something might happen to her and it would be my fault, so I would check the bedroom was safe.  This sense of responsibility grew and became an overwhelming sense of responsibility for everyone in my house and people I came into contact with.  At around the same time, our biological father cut contact with us, which may have contributed to the sense of not wanting to lose anyone else.

By this time, at bedtime, I was checking all the windows and doors in the house, the oven/grill/hob dials, door locks, taps, switches.  Most adults might do a check-around the house at bedtime, but I was now between 8-11 years old and with OCD, you do not just check once.  It is an issue because you become obsessed with the fear of something happening and you feel compelled to check it.  However, you then doubt you’ve checked it and have to check again – and again – and again.  It is obsessive and compulsive.  At my worst, it was taking 2 hours from saying good night to settling down to sleep.  I was also trying to hide this from my parents, but of course as good parents, they realised something was up, but, being the 90s, we weren’t talking about mental health as much and I think they thought it was probably a phase.

We moved house and I developed more habits/rituals which were even harder to rationalise – I was obsessed with picking up bits on the floor in case they were sharp/hurt people (including on the pavement), ensuring things weren’t hanging over edges of tables/shelves, checking under beds, in cupboards, behind doors, checking the time – especially in bed – turning lights on and off and more.  This caused me to be extremely tired as I was losing sleep and actually, it’s exhausting being anxious all the time.  Because of this, I had to leave my Catholic school that I loved and used to get the bus to, as for my health it made sense to go to the local school and not get up at 6am!

My parents were trying to support me through it, but I also hid much of the issue from them and honestly, I was ashamed of myself.

I had always had a strong faith – a real connection with God.  This was formed at a young age by my mother and Granny and I always remember talking to God as a child.  I loved going to Church and altar serving, I loved my Priest and head altar server growing up, as well as the parish and felt really close to God.  Having faith means you trust God, you trust that all is well, that life is eternal, God will provide, “Do not be afraid”.

Yet I was afraid – ALL THE TIME!

As a teen, my mum took me to the GP.  He diagnosed me and suggested counselling and medication.  I refused both.  I felt that I’m a person of faith, I need to pray more, it’s mind over matter isn’t it?  I thought to accept that help would be an admission that my faith in God is not as strong as I thought it was/wanted it to be and I just couldn’t do that.

At 17/18, I hit rock bottom with it and broke down to my parents that I was struggling with my OCD.  I went back to the GP, who referred me to a psychologist who officially diagnosed OCD and I started to see a counsellor.  I remember my Priest in a homily telling the story of the person shipwrecked and prayed to God for help, refusing the lifeboat, helicopter, etc as God would help him and realised that accepting counselling was like accepting the lifeboat that God was sending.

Counselling did help a lot, and I learnt strategies to help me reduce the checking, which I still put in place to this day.  Unfortunately, it’s never stopped, but I don’t think there is a cure and I know my brain is wired differently.  And, unfortunately, when I had my children, it became as bad as it ever was.  I now had people who absolutely were my responsibility to keep alive and well.  Any new parent is anxious.  But for me with my OCD, it was very difficult, to the point I couldn’t really enjoy those early days with them as babies, which I then felt incredibly guilty about!  I was awake most of the time as, even though the baby was asleep, I was listening to make sure he was breathing, every time he moved/breathed funny, I had to get up and check him, I was worried that nappies would be too tight so would take me ages to change him, same with the second and once they were in their own rooms, I’d have to check on them even more and the list goes on.

I started to see a counsellor again and had 3 rounds of NHS counselling.  Whilst helpful, it was not bespoke to my needs, but gave me a general understanding of the science behind OCD.  Then the pandemic happened and suddenly we were being told that if we don’t follow all these rules, people could get ill and die.  Well, that played right into my OCD of course.  My NHS counselling was finished and I started to see a private therapist, who was more of a specialist.  By this time my OCD was really difficult due to COVID.  He suggested I read a book about OCD – I had been suggested this before but I didn’t want to read it as I was worried I’d “get ideas” of more things to be worried about.  However, as my checking and anxiety got really bad, my husband encouraged me to take the advice of the counsellor, and so I read it.  Unfortunately, this did have the effect I was really worried about and I developed something call Pure OCD.  This involved having constant intrusive thoughts that I might be capable of doing terrible things and then constant mental checking that I am a good person.  This led to a real break-down for me, to the point I had to leave my husband and kids at home and fly out to my parents for a few days.  For the first time in my life, I had real thoughts of suicide, but because I knew I would never do that, I hoped that every time I went out in my car on my own, that someone would crash into me, or I’d fall down the stairs or anything else.  My therapist had assured me that these thoughts were indeed just OCD in a different form and that the book can be triggering.

This had a massive impact on my faith.  Firstly, I found it really hard to pray – the silence was where I was most vulnerable to my intrusive thoughts and an OCD coping strategy is distraction.  So frankly, I stopped.  I also became very angry with God and started to doubt – sometimes I doubted his existence – but mostly I was doubting who he is.  I know we can all be prone to saying “why me?”  But I was struggling with, “why anyone?  Why does it need to be so hard?”  I have tried to be a good person all my life – as most of us do – sometimes to my own detriment, to being thought of as weird, boring, etc.  And yet, there’s this OCD that causes me to believe I’m capable of doing terrible things.  I was terrified – utterly terrified and so angry at God that people have to suffer this way – and in any way.  I’d always seen OCD as my cross to bear, but God was bearing it with me.  Now I couldn’t pray, going to mass was really hard, so I truly felt I was on my own and it was too much to bear alone.

My family was a real rock of support – my husband was great and my parents paid for me to see a psychiatrist at the Priory.  That was great as she was very top of her field and really assured me that this was all normal OCD symptoms and she put me on medication, and 10 weeks of therapy at the priory with a psychotherapist specialising in my condition.

Whilst the medication – anti-anxiety/anti-depressant – made me feel worse at first (a normal side-effect), it started to have an impact after about 6 weeks.  I was told it would cream off a third of anxiety, which I’d say it did.  Alongside the therapy, it was the right treatment for me.  My therapist delved into my past a bit and explained that my OCD is how my body/brain coped with stress, that I may not have noticed I had.  And there were one or two big events in childhood (especially my biological father cutting contact with us) that may explain some of that.

My therapist also had a Catholic background, so she understood my struggles with my faith and some of the “Catholic guilt” I already carried around with me.  She helped me to be more mindful again and this helped me to start praying again.  I had strategies to help me banish intrusive thoughts as they came and not to ruminate on them.  And I understood that my issues were purely scientific/biological.

I still see my therapist every now and then, but I’m actually in a really good place right now.  I’ve accepted my OCD won’t ever go away or be cured.  I think and hope that for some it can.  It is my cross to bear and I see now God is bearing it with me and sometimes carrying me.  I’ve made peace with God and am building that relationship again with him.  But I do still sometimes find it hard to pray as I used to, which used to be silence.  I now turn to my prayer book/bible more, so I have words and structure.  But I know God doesn’t mind and I know he understands me more than I understand myself.  And I’m so grateful to feel him present in my life again.

I know that I am a very fortunate person and people go through awful things.  But I wanted to share my experience and how my faith was affected in case anyone else feels that way, and it might help.  I want anyone struggling with a mental health condition to know that it can have an impact on faith – and that is not your fault, you are not a bad Christian (or other faith), but that you have a medical condition that is out of your control, no matter how strong your faith.  Seek help and God will be there all the way through – even if he has to carry you.

Hannah Kelly, Chair of Essex Faith Covenant

If you’d like to contact Hannah Kelly, you can do so here: [email protected].