Interview with Nancy Kehoe - Distinguished Clinician and Nun

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Dr. Nancy Kehoe is a nun (Religious of the Sacred Heart) and distinguished clinician and licensed psychologist. She is an Instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Cambridge Health Alliance affiliated with Harvard Medical School. In her forthcoming book Wrestling with Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness, and the Journey to Wholeness, Kehoe talks about her pioneering work in leading patient groups in the discussion of their religious beliefs and its role in their treatment.

What concerns were raised when you first proposed doing this group?

The staff thought the clients would become more delusional around religion; they feared that the religious clients would feel free to proselytize, that discussing religion in the community would be divisive; the staff feared the clients would ask them about their beliefs.

What prompted you to write Wrestling with Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness, and the Journey to Wholeness?

After the death of one of my clients, I learned that she had willed me her plastic crate of journals with the hope that I would do something with them. As I read through all her journal entries, I saw that she was on a quest to distinguish between where God was as she suffered with her mental illness and what were the symptoms of her illness. I knew then that it was important to tell her story both to give hope to those who anguished with similar questions and to teach professionals who often ignore the religious aspect of a client's life.

How does your faith affect the way you work with the mentally ill?

My grandfather was hospitalized twice for depression and my grandmother absolutely believed that the Sacred Heart of Jesus would not let her down and that my grandfather would return to his family. This family story always told me that faith and mental illness were not mutually exclusive. It was my belief that those who suffer with mental illness might also have religious backgrounds that could either be helpful to them as they struggled with their illness or that some beliefs might be problematic. That faith conviction prompted me to begin the groups. Often times in leading the groups, when I feel at a loss as to what direction I should take with a person or when I am overwhelmed by the suffering in their lives, I pray. I count on my faith for guidance.

How has working with this population informed your faith?

Working with the men and women in the day treatment program has challenged my faith and made me question what it is that I truly do believe. I search for God in the midst of the darkness and pain I see, and I've come to a new sense of mystery. I believe more strongly than ever that God is present in the community and that I see God's Presence, God's Spirit in the courage, the resilience, and the compassion of the clients.

What did your clients teach you about how they used the arts as a form of self-expression?

They taught me about how arts express their spirit. If we believe that we are made in God's image and likeness, creativity is in the deepest part of a human being. In our spirits, in the core of each one of us, God is found. That is where I see the clients expressing themselves through their art.

How did their stories unleash your own creativity?

Because I was so deeply moved by their stories, I determined to write this book. In doing so, my own creativity was unleashed in ways I never would have imagined.

In the book, you talk about Buddy and Beverly who died from cancer. How did their deaths inform your work and your faith?

It was not the deaths of Buddy and Beverly that informed my work and my faith but rather their lives. The “estate” that Beverly willed me and the discoveries I made about her life as I read through her journals made me aware of the journey she was on to discover where God was in the midst of her pain. I could only marvel at her courageous and often lonely journey, a journey I wanted to reveal to others as a sign of hope. Buddy informed my work and my faith by his persistent questions, his unwillingness to accept any response from me that didn't make sense to him. Consequently, he made me reexamine all my beliefs and how I expressed them. With both of them, I grew in my sense of how God does act in our lives, whether we name God or not in the process.

You have said that God told you to become a nun. How is what you experienced and what many Christians experience in their relationship to God different from those who experience auditory hallucinations?

Beth and Taylor, two of the women I write about in the book, can answer that better from their own experience than I can from mine as I have not suffered with auditory hallucinations. However, we want to name or experience the voice—the sense of the Other, the effect is one of peace, a sense of wholeness, Shalom as the Hebrews mean it.

That does not mean that the Voice or the experience may not have its painful, difficult, or challenging aspects, but it is not destructive. Auditory hallucinations on the other hand are experienced as disruptive, chaotic, negative, demanding, and harsh. These voices sometimes lead to self-destructive behavior.

How can we discern whether a spirit is good or destructive?

What does the spirit invite us to do? What sense accompanies the prompting of the spirit? Does the prompting lead to peace, joy, patience, long-suffering, kindness—all fruits of the good Spirit—or does the prompting lead us to a sense of disease, a turning in on the self instead of turning outward to the community, to openness toward others or toward secrecy, to acting in the dark? Are we willing to submit our sense of the spirit to another? The basic way we discern is to consider the direction of the spirit—toward life or toward death.

What did working with your clients teach you about how to love your neighbor as yourself?

They have taught me that it is critical for me to take care of myself, to love myself, to nurture myself, to stay grounded in my faith and my times of solitude so that in turn I can nurture them, be open to their pain, and be accepting of my limitations.

What advice do you have for Christians who would like to reach out to this population but don't know how?

The most important advice I would offer is to consider the person first and then the mental illness. Individuals who suffer with mental illness are first and foremost persons who have a mental illness. We never refer to a person as a cancerous person or a heart-diseased person, but we do talk about a mentally ill person. Secondly, I would say to get to know people and their histories. Thirdly, become more aware of the way those who have a mental illness are marginalized. Then actively work to change stigma, beginning with yourself.