When she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 19, Lisa Rumpel found community, hope, and healing in secular and non-Catholic support groups.
Now a mental health advocate, Rumpel is behind efforts to offer more resources to Catholics living with mental illness in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
“There is nothing in the Church here, that I know of,” Rumpel said during a presentation at Corpus Christi and St. Mark’s College April 10.
Rumpel’s struggle with mental illness began at age 18. While her peers were getting excited about Grade 12 field trips and their graduation from high school, Rumpel began experiencing psychosis.
“I was hearing voices, having hallucinations, and I was very paranoid. My moods were rapidly cycling from euphoric to depressed – mostly just depressed,” she told the small crowd at the college. “I started to believe that it would be better if I wasn’t alive.”
The thoughts were overwhelming. One day, while packing for a weekend trip with her classmates, Rumpel once again found herself in that dark place and she crumpled to the floor, barely squeaking out the words: “Help me!” Her mother found her on the floor, crying, and asked her if she was okay. She was not.
“The noisy thoughts kept repeating. ‘What’s the point?’ ‘It would be better if you were dead.’ It’s not that I wanted to die. I wanted an escape from unbearable pain,” said Rumpel.
“I thought there was no point in living anymore. I thought my family would be better off without me. I couldn’t lift myself. My mom held me tenderly and gave me my fuzzy purple and white snowflake pyjamas.”
After trying to comfort her weeping daughter, Rumpel’s mother made a few phone calls. Then, while Rumpel’s classmates were off on a weekend adventure, Rumpel was admitted to a mental hospital for adults.
“Clinging to my rosary was the only thing that brought me comfort in the break with reality and it stayed clasped in my hand during the whole stay.”
After two weeks, Rumpel left the hospital and ended up graduating with honours, thanks to support from teachers, counsellors, friends, and family. But her mental health journey was far from over; during her first year of studies at Corpus Christi College, one year later, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that brings severe high and low moods and changes in sleep, energy, thinking and behaviour,” she said, describing how she left undergraduate studies behind to give herself time to understand her diagnosis and find ways to improve her health.
During these trials, Rumpel found faith and community her cornerstones of hope.
“I have found support in my dark times and chaotic times through the understanding and kind community of family and friends. Fortunately, I was blessed with a loving family that cares for me in the never-ending succession of ups and downs,” she said. “I am not free of illness, but I can enjoy healthy living that is made easier by awareness and care.”
Rumpel was particularly inspired by the late Archbishop Raymond Roussin. He did not keep his struggle with depression as a secret as he served as Vancouver’s archbishop from 2004 to 2009.
“He took off the mask of shame and fear and lived victoriously,” said Rumpel. “I believe that with faith, an encouraging community, acceptance, and healthy living, people who have a mental illness can live victoriously too.”
But a local Catholic community for people with mental illness is, so far, still missing. Sister John Mary Sullivan, FSE, a counsellor and the archdiocese’s associate director for ministries and outreach, said as far as she knows there are no official or unofficial support groups for Catholics with mental illness in the Lower Mainland.
(A Christian non-profit organization called Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries does offer resources and courses and is consistent with Catholic teaching.)
“I would not hesitate for (a Catholic) to attend a Sanctuary support group,” said Sister Sullivan. She added that the archdiocese offers a registry of suggested Catholic and Christian counselling professionals at www.rcav.org/personal-counselling.
Rumpel was featured in a Sanctuary video series taped last year. She hopes sharing her story of illness and hope can inspire other Catholics to seek help. “I’m hoping to be part of that push to have support groups in Catholic churches. A lot of education has to happen first,” she said.
She also urges those struggling with mental illness to find supportive communities inside or outside of the Church. She has volunteered as a peer support buddy for teens at Early Psychosis Intervention (a secular mental health clinic) and now co-leads a devotional support group called Living Room.
“We are not meant to live alone. We are social beings and belong in community,” Rumpel said. Her health and strength are sustained by her faith, family, friends, and peers.
“Next time you smile at someone or lend a hand, know how much kindness means to a person who may really need it. You never know, they might be climbing a mountain.”