UCC Pastor Shares Story of Mental Health Struggles

    Listen to this Post via Text-to-Speech Narration

    by Rev. Katie O’Dunne
    [email protected]

    Rev. Katie O’Dunne shares how navigating her own mental health journey has given her the opportunity to work at the intersection of faith and mental health. Participate in her work through this survey or upcoming virtual conference to be a part of the change!

    I am honored to represent the Southeast Conference of the UCC each day in my role as the interfaith chaplain and religious studies faculty member at Woodward Academy just outside Atlanta. Over the past six years, the intersection between faith and mental health in my own life has exponentially expanded my passion for this work with students from diverse faith backgrounds. I’ve opened up about my own mental health struggles in order to let students know they are not alone. On the surface, I am an ordained UCC minister, school chaplain, religious educator, and ultra-marathon runner who has it all together. In my more private life, I’ve battled severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder since childhood, with a significant relapse while serving in ministry a few years ago.

    I often hear individuals say, “I’m so OCD”…meaning they organize things in a particular way or are very neat. I constantly see “how OCD are you” tests on social media and even have friends joke about my “OCD” making me a strong leader. But in reality, my OCD has nothing to do with leadership, organization, or tidiness. Rather, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is characterized by obsessions, which are repeated, unwanted intrusive thoughts… and compulsions, which are behaviors aimed at reducing the discomfort associated with these thoughts. The symptoms and irrational forms it has taken have stolen large chunks of my life and the lives of so many friends in advocacy.

    Common obsessions can relate to contamination, health, harm, hyper-responsibility, false memories, religious scrupulosity, moral scrupulosity, relationships, sexuality, and beyond. There are thousands of compulsions (both physical and mental) to alleviate the anxiety associated with whatever the current obsession is, such as checking, avoidance, mental review, counting, and reassurance seeking. Obsessions and compulsions look very different for each person, and many do not experience the cute and helpful types you see in movies and TV shows. Rather, most individuals experience unique, taboo obsessions… as OCD tends to latch onto the things that are most important to each person and can be completely debilitating when not treated effectively. At my worst, I was convinced I was an absolutely horrible individual unworthy of the love I tried to offer those around me in ministry.

    Due to treatment barriers, it takes many individuals more than 15 years to receive the appropriate treatment. For me, evidence-based treatment was quite literally life-changing and life-saving. Since OCD is the “doubting disorder,” the gold standard first-line evidence-based treatment for OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), which falls under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The Exposure in ERP refers to exposing yourself to the thoughts, images, objects, and situations that make you anxious. The Response Prevention part of ERP refers to making a choice not to complete a compulsive behavior once the obsessions have been “triggered.” ERP is challenging and uncomfortable, but this work with a trained professional creates new pathways in the brain and teaches individuals to tolerate uncertainty, even with the unlikely potential of their most terrifying obsessions coming true.

    Many of us with OCD are amazing at “appearing” to have it all together while spending countless hours a day completing compulsions and struggling to function. Quite honestly, just a few years ago, I struggled to consider any possibility of a future, despite appearing to thrive in my ministry supporting students each day. Unfortunately, many clinicians (outside of OCD experts) and faith leaders interact with those experiencing untreated OCD each day, but many are not knowledgeable on evidence-based treatment or resources. This simply perpetuates the problem, especially for those experiencing religious-based themes of OCD (scrupulosity). There are so many times when faith leaders seek to compassionately offer comfort in these areas, while reassurance only worsens the grip of OCD without the correct treatment.

    I am so thankful that the Southeast Conference of the UCC is passionate about supporting individuals in both their spiritual and mental health journeys. As a result, you can be a part of the change in your congregation! I currently serve as the Vice President for the OCD Georgia Board of Directors, as well as a national advocate for the International OCD Foundation, and I need YOUR HELP! With the IOCDF, I am currently helping to develop new programming around faith and mental health. My goal is to encourage a deeper understanding of mental health concerns within diverse religious communities while fostering positive, collaborative relationships between religious practitioners and mental health providers. Spirituality and clinical mental health treatment do not have to be mutually exclusive. Rather, my faith is so significant to my recovery AND evidence-based treatment saved my life. This is where you come in!

    In working with the IOCDF, I have helped to develop a needs assessment in the form of a brief survey with different questions for clergy, clinicians, and those with OCD. I would love your participation and honest feedback as clergy, as this feedback will help in the development of resources and programming. I would also love to have your participation in an upcoming virtual conference on May 21, where we are seeking to bring clinicians and faith leaders together to discuss ways to recognize OCD (particularly religious scrupulosity) in congregations while offering evidence-based resources.

    Thank you so much for your support and participation. Despite some very difficult periods, I am so honored to work alongside so many inspiring advocates, clinicians, and faith leaders as we seek to bridge the gap between faith and mental health. I truly believe God has created beauty out of brokenness in my life. I am always here as a resource for you or for your congregation. As I tell my students, even faith leaders need outside help sometimes – and that’s okay. Every single person is worthy of getting the help needed to reclaim their life and use the beautiful gifts God has given them.