Archbishop Raymond Roussin of Vancouver, BC Battles Depression
...and its stigma
By Douglas Todd
Archbishop Raymond Roussin remembers the shame he felt when he first admitted to himself and others he was clinically depressed.
“It was humiliating,” said Roussin, who three years ago was appointed head of the sprawling Vancouver archdiocese. “I thought, ‘How could I possibly be mentally ill?’ Such people are supposed to be put away, or drugged to death.”
One day in the late summer of 2005, Roussin woke up trembling.
“I started crying and didn’t know why. I couldn’t get out of bed. I dreaded coming through this door,” he said, gesturing toward his office lined with photos of him, at different times, with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
“Clinical depression is a mental illness that can put a black mark on your personality. Some people today still feel it is a mistake to talk about it publicly,” said Roussin, 67.
His insights highlight a major dilemma for North American clergy, who often feel they cannot publicly disclose their struggles with psychological problems or mental illness.
“Some people feel it hurts the church’s reputation and reduces me to a weak human being,” said the archbishop, who believes his depression was brought on by the stress and insecurity he felt in increasingly demanding duties. But he is determined not to give in to the stigma surrounding the disease.
Psychotherapists welcome Roussin’s bravery in going public, but wish what he did could just be seen as normal.
“The only way things change is for people to take a risk,” said Vancouver therapist Deborrah Dunne. “But I don’t think it should be radical for clergy to say they need help.”
Church hierarchies are known for “creating loneliness, stress and very strong expectations to perform” among high-level clergy, said Brian Klassen, a therapist in Langley, British Columbia.
“A clergyperson often has no one to go to if they’re having problems, except their bosses, and that won’t feel safe. There can also be a sense among Christians that they’re better than other people, so they can’t get depressed or suffer mental illness. They think, ‘We will be victorious; God will somehow take care of everything.’ ”
In February, Roussin gained international headlines when he threatened a boycott unless cell phone giant Telus Mobility stopped plans to sell erotic images on cell phones; the company backed down. That public scuffle added to a dramatic coming-out-of-the-depression-closet for Roussin, who had never wanted to be in the spotlight in the first place, especially through the media.
When his depression first struck almost two years ago, Roussin found it exaggerated his already introverted nature. “It made me want to pull away completely from the world,” he said.
And despite the emotional, physical and spiritual strength he’s developed in the past months, Roussin said some memory problems associated with the disease persist. He continues to take medication, particularly for stress.
He also has an undiagnosed -- and probably unrelated -- tremor in his fingers, which makes it difficult to write notes or type on a keyboard. Combined with his quiet voice, it can create an aura of fragility about him.
Klassen, the therapist, said he admires Roussin for not pretending he’s completely recovered from his battle with depression. “Christians like to hear success stories. They want to hear, ‘I once was sick, but now I’m OK.’ But Archbishop Roussin is willing to show he’s still feeling vulnerable.”
Clergy are the kind of professional caregivers who often end up depressed, added Dunne. “Most depressives give more than they receive. They’re suffering from depression because they’re insufficiently nourished in their self. It’s a message they’re not balanced.”
During his recovery, Roussin has found comfort in the writings of the late Catholic spiritual director Fr. Henri Nouwen. Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer, describes how suffering, vulnerable people -- like Jesus -- are ideally suited for supporting others who are struggling.
“The Wounded Healer helped me recognize it isn’t the power of the world that really counts in being a success,” Roussin said. “The powerful -- whether in business, in school or in sports -- only seem to win. But it’s not really the case in the long run. The wounded healer is the one who is able to reach out to more and more people.”
When Roussin’s darkness set in, he feared he had “lost everything.” He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. His 5-foot-5-inch frame shrank to 119 pounds.
Roussin experienced a rapid rise to demanding positions of authority. He had been a priest, educator and chaplain until 1995, when Pope John Paul appointed him a bishop in Saskatchewan. He was handed the difficult task of dismantling the diocese and integrating it into its neighbor.
Soon after, in 1998, Roussin was appointed bishop of Victoria, British Columbia, where he saved the diocese from severe debt. In 2004, the Vatican appointed him archbishop for Vancouver, in charge of more than 300 clergy and a large, ethnically diverse flock of 400,000 Catholics.
At that time, Roussin told the news media the appointment felt “overwhelming.” Privately, he says he told the Vatican’s ambassador to Canada, Papal Nuncio Luigi Ventura, “I don’t think I’m the one for this.”
Roussin recalled, “Was I afraid? Yes I was. Little me from Winnipeg was at the largest diocese in Western Canada. All the problems in the diocese, of personnel and finance, stopped at my desk. I was having all the negative thoughts you could have about yourself.”
After admitting to people he was in distress, Roussin took about five months off to recuperate at a health and retreat center in New York.
Today, about a year after beginning a phased-in return to his archbishop’s duties, Roussin is again busy with work, and feeling physically strong.
He goes for a 45-minute walk each morning. And he’s pumping iron at a gym twice each week. “I weigh 140 pounds, and it’s all muscle, literally,” he says, amazed at his own fitness.
For those wondering if the archbishop’s depression was caused by a loss of Christian faith, he says it’s not so.
“I didn’t come to the point of despair. Despair would be a sense there’s no hope. Some days it felt like no hope, but I knew it was there despite the hell I was going through. There was faith in the darkness. ...
“There’s just something there,” Roussin said, softly pounding his fist on his chest, “in the raw heart, that says, ‘I believe.’ ”
Reprinted from Mirabile Dictu (March 30/07) the online newsletter of Corpus USA (email: email@example.com). Originally published in National Catholic Reporter.