Bishop James Conley offered a candid assessment of his own mental health recently, and spoke with CNA about what prompted him to take a leave of absence from his leadership of the Diocese of Lincoln.
I would describe this interview as nothing less than heroic:
In December 2019, Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln announced he was going on a medical leave of absence.
Citing diagnoses of depression and anxiety, as well as chronic insomnia and debilitating tinnitus (a constant ringing of the ears), the bishop said in a public statement that he would be receiving psychological as well as medical treatment.
It had taken him months to get to a point where he realized he needed help.
“It really goes back to the summer of 2018, so, long before I finally got to the point where I asked for some time off,” Conley told CNA.
“There were the difficulties in the Church with regard to the misconduct of priests…(including) here in my diocese,” he said. That summer was also when the McCarrick scandal broke, and when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report came out.
“I used to tell people that great prayer that Saint John XXIII would say at night: ‘Lord, it’s your Church. I’m going to bed.’ And I wasn’t able to take my own advice. I just was getting ground down.”
Besides abuse scandals, Conley also had to close some diocesan schools that had been “running in the red for a number of years. And that’s always a difficult decision to make. It was the right decision, but it was a hard decision.”
There was also a priest of the diocese, younger than Conley, who died around that time. “There were a number of other things that kind of mounted,” Conley said. “I think that started it.”
As the problems mounted, Conley felt personally responsible for them all, as a bishop and as someone who cared about the people in his diocese.
“I (felt I) was responsible for all of this and that I had to try to fix it myself instead of surrendering to God,” he said.
But the physical and mental symptoms started compounding. He couldn’t sleep. He started losing interest in things he had once enjoyed. A constant ringing began in his ears. He felt overwhelmed.
“I used to tell people that great prayer that Saint John XXIII supposedly would say at night during the Second Vatican Council: ‘Lord, it’s your Church. I’m going to bed.’ And I wasn’t able to take my own advice,” he said. “I just was getting ground down.”
Conley said that while he never was tempted to use unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drugs or alcohol, he was worried what would happen if he continued to feel so anxious and overwhelmed.
In the spring of 2019, Conley went to Mayo Clinic and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. He said he tried to rest, worry less, and go to counseling while maintaining his duties as a bishop, but it wasn’t working.
“I was trying to fix myself and as time went on, I realized that I couldn’t fix myself while I was still on the job, so to speak.”
Kudos, bishop. And thank you for opening a window into your experience. I hope it helps others.