Mental Illness & Depression- Catholic Internet Resources
by Timothy Hughes Duff, STM, MA Cert. RCHL, ERD & BCC
This morning I woke up extra early and headed upstairs to the office with my cup of coffee in hand. I began to google the words, "Catholic" and "mental illness" as I usually do. I read a few of the more common Catholic websites and beheld no earth shattering news or articles. Then on page two of the goodle page I saw a link to an excellant article by someone named Karin who wrote about her own experience with mental illness and tried to offer Catholic Resources to those who are in search of dealing with mental illness in a Catholic way. This came after my two latest blogs this past week which mention this very topic. The article takes about ten minutes to read. Can I recommend that you read all of the accompanying links to help you grasp a full understanding of what Karin is trying to say? I do think you will like it and understand more about the Catholic approach to mental illness.
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A (Not-So-Religious) Catholic’s Guide to Depression (and Other Mental Illnesses)
For Catholics who are dealing with / have loved ones with / want to understand more about depression and other mental illnesses
I’m not an expert in either mental illness or Catholicism. God knows that I’m not even devout. But, going through clinical depression myself, recognise the importance of understanding mental illnesses from a religious perspective.
Mental illness is too often stigmatised by so-called religious people, who see it as signalling at best a lack of faith and at worst demonic possession or God’s punishment. (We’ve heard of cases of exorcism being performed on people who actually had MIs.) This is a wrong, very harmful, and alienating perception. Religious people with MIs often struggle with their own faith, fearing that they are distancing themselves from God, or suffering from prejudice from other religious people. I myself felt distant from and angry with God and the Catholic Church for a long time, with that being one of the reasons.
In reality, mental illness is a real illness, a legitimate medical condition. Everyone can have it, and its prevalence means it may be affecting us to a greater extent than what we think. We probably know of someone with it, or someone who has a loved one with MI. It thus should not be stigmatised at all, particularly not from a religious perspective, since faith plays an important role in the lives of many people. As far as I know most religions encourage their believers to be compassionate to those who are ill, and surely this includes those who are mentally ill.
Growing up a Catholic, this is the religion I have the most confidence to talk about. In a way this isn’t really a religious guide as a summary of other online resources on Catholicism and depression peppered with my personal experience, and truth be told I’m nowhere near devout — I feel that I lack the religious knowledge to speak on this matter. But this is the only thing that I can do for other Catholics who are struggling with MI. This post also focuses on depression because it is probably the most widely known and talked about mental illness, but will touch on the issue of MIs in general.
Last but not least, this a religious hate free zone, so save your “but god isn’t real!” argument for some other occasions. You’re entitled to your own opinion, but please don’t bring it up to someone who has mental illness and still wants to believe in their God. :-)
What are depression and mental illnesses, and what cause them?
When we think of mental illness (MI) we tend to think of the stereotypical insane maniac, or the crazy stalker troupe—the deranged and dangerous who live in a separate world, unlike the “normal” and functional people around us. In reality, this is not the case. According to Mayo Clinic:
Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.
Mental illness is also more common than we think. According to the US National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four Americans has a mental illness. Like physical illness, mental illness also comes in varying types and degrees. Those who have mild or moderate mental illnesses may be able to pass as “normal”. Severe and persistent mental illnesss, although affecting a smaller proportion of the population, can be seriously disabling. In the US about 6% of the population has a serious mental illness. Given the prevalence of mental illness, though, it is possible that we probably know one or two person with mental illness, although they may not show obvious signs of mental health concerns.
One of the most well-known and prevalent mental illnesses is major depressive disorder, commonly known as just depression. We often mistake depression as prolonged sadness, a sign of hypersensitivity, or a sign of a weak personality. However, depression is actually a medical condition that can deeply impair a person’s mental and also physical functioning. Depression drains one’s energy and obscures his ability to concentrate and make logical decisions. In cases of severe depression, a depressed individual is physically affected as well. They lack energy to even get out of bed and do simple tasks like showering, they either eat and sleep too much or too little. Suicidal ideation and behaviour are another alarming sign of severe depression. In severe cases there sometimes are psychotic symptoms as well, meaning a depressed individual may have hallucinations and delusions.
There are many causes of depression and other MIs. Some disorders have their roots in traumatic childhood experience — abuse, neglect, bullying, etc. Some has got something to do with biochemical imbalance in the body. Some people developed theirs after an exposure to intense stress — from an overly competitive workplace, the death of a loved one, etc. Individuals who are naturally sensitive may be more prone to them. Sometimes the cause isn’t obvious. Whatever the cause is, keep in mind that people with depression are not weak. What is stressful to one may not affect the other. Depression is not a matter of mental strength, nor it can be cured with good will.
Depression is curable, but it is not easy to recover from depression. In addition, people with depression or other MIs often have to suffer alone in silence because MIs are still heavily stigmatised. Even if their loved ones cared about them, they often offer suggestions that may be well-meant but ineffective — things like “Cheer up!” “Don’t overthink,” “You should pray more,” etc.
To be fair, it is difficult to understand the depths of MI unless you’ve been in that low. However you can read articles written by people who have gone/are going through depression and other MIs to understand how lonely and misunderstood people with MI often feel.
Depression, the Corporal Works of Mercy, and saints
Now, we know of unfavourable perspectives on mental illnesses that exist in the Catholic community. But we’re not going to talk about that, as we know that depression, as well as other mental illnesses, isn’t a sin. It is a real medical condition.
As Catholics we are encouraged to perform the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, actions that we can perform to extend God’s compassion to those in need. One of the Corporal Works of Mercy is caring for the sick. Most of us would think only of those who are physically ill, but this actually includes those who are afflicted by mental illnesses as well.
Pope (now Saint) John Paul II gave an address on depression in 2003. The complete address can be found here, and there’s a summary and discussion of what he said here. I can’t explain things as well as those two sources do, but I shall quote Saint John Paul II’s address here:
The role of those who care for depressed persons and who do not have a specifically therapeutic task consists above all in helping them to rediscover their self-esteem, confidence in their own abilities, interest in the future, the desire to live. It is therefore important to stretch out a hand to the sick, to make them perceive the tenderness of God, to integrate them into a community of faith and life in which they can feel accepted, understood, supported, respected; in a word, in which they can love and be loved.
Saint John Paul II not only encouraged Catholics to care for those who are depressed, but also reminded us of how difficult doing simple tasks are for them:
Aware of the effort it costs a depressed person to do something which to others appears simple and spontaneous, one must endeavour to help him with patience and sensitivity, remembering the observation of St Theresa of the Child Jesus: “Little ones take little steps.”
Depression is a lonely illness, and it makes one feel alienated from others, their faith, and God. In the twisted logic of depression it even seems that God Himself is mocking our attempt to pray. As such it’s difficult to think that saints, who have experienced the divine love of God themselves, could relate to our tribulations.
However, depression is a malady that spares no one, not even holy people. There were saints who suffered from depression and other mental illnesses. St. John Vianney struggled from severe depression and anxiety throughout his life that he was unable to see his gifts. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton faced a period of depression and suicidal thoughts as an adolescent. St. Christina the Astonishing and St. Benedict Joseph Labre displayed eccentric behaviours and were seen as mad. And there’s also St. Dymphna, patron saint of those who suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental and nervous disorders.
Praying when depressed
Unfortunately, people somehow think that praying can heal depression and other mental illnesses, the same way people somehow think that positive thinking and gratitude can heal mental illnesses.
I am not saying that praying doesn’t help. But clinical depression is a serious medical condition. Clinical depression is not demonic possession or God’s punishment, and different from what St Ignatius of Loyola called a spiritual trial, although when one is religious depression has spiritual aspects to it as well. Depression erodes one’s self-worth and any belief that life is worth living, hence it is very hard to pray and very easy to doubt God when one is depressed. Telling people who are depressed to pray more will only make them feel worse. Either they will feel guilty and more worthless for not trusting God enough, or they will feel angrier because they have prayed but nothing good ever comes out. Either way, it’s alienating and annoying.
But Roman Catholic is a wonderful religion in a way that there’s a patron saint for everything, and when you think you can’t pray to anyone, you can always pray to St. Jude, patron saint for lost causes.
Jokes aside, we already know that there are patron saints for mental illnesses, St. Dymphna being one of them. There is an intercessory prayer to St. Dymphna that may offer help and hope to those who suffer from depression:
Prayer to Saint Dymphna
Good Saint Dymphna, great wonder-worker in every affliction of mind and body, I humbly implore your powerful intercession with Jesus through Mary, the Health of the Sick, in my present need. (Mention it.) Saint Dymphna, martyr of purity, patroness of those who suffer with nervous and mental afflictions, beloved child of Jesus and Mary, pray to Them for me and obtain my request.
(Pray one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Glory Be.)
Saint Dymphna, Virgin and Martyr, pray for us.
Other than St. Dymphna, there are other holy figures who are patrons to mental illness that Catholics can pray to. Some of them are listed in this article.
But most importantly, you should not despair if you feel difficulty praying. Easier said than done, of course. I myself was and still am angry with this religion and God. But I have beginning to find comfort in knowing that what I have isn’t a sin or demonic possession or God’s punishment. It is an illness that can be cured and God is patient and merciful to those who are ill.
If you know someone who is depressed, please avoid telling them to pray more. You can offer to pray for them instead. This lets them know that you care about them and also reminds them that God loves them — in a much less patronising way than telling them to pray more.
Mental illness, Suicide, and Catholicism
I feel that another reason mental illness is badly stigmatised amongst the religious community is because of the association between MI and suicide, as suicide is generally seen as sinful in religious perspectives.
However, this should not be the case. While it is true that the Church forbids the wilful taking of one’s life, the Church also understands that a Catholic who is facing a profound psychological distress may not be deemed morally responsible for taking or attempting to take his own life.
As explained in this article, moral responsibility in the Catholic tradition is measured in large part by our freedom in choosing it. For a sin to be “mortal”, it must involve serious matter and freedom — in other words, the will and intellect must be freely engaged in the act. However people who have mental illness may have their intellect severely clouded by the illness, as in the case of one who is severely depressed and thus unable of making logical decisions, or an individual with borderline personality disorder who is unable to control his explosive impulsivity. If it’s not because of their illness, they will not be killing themselves.
God is good and His mercy is beyond our reason. It is not our place to judge someone who faced an emotional distress so extreme that he’s driven to killing himself. God knows him better than we do.
If someone you know has expressed a suicidal ideation, do not say “You’ll go to hell if you commit suicide!” This is ineffective and will only alienate them. Any serious suicidal thought is a psychological emergency, signalling that the person is suffering from a profound emotional distress that their judgment is badly clouded. Talking sense into them is likely to be ineffective, let alone threatening them that they’ll go to hell. It is more effective to listen to them without any judgment while also watching out for them and keeping them safe from any chance of harming themselves. Suicide attempts or threats can be thwarted by genuine care and attention. And if God Himself does not judge, why should we?
Ultimately, a real believer should show compassion and be an extension of God’s hands by showing compassion and reaching out towards those with mental illness. As I said earlier, my depression and the false prejudice religious people often have against depression contributed to my disillusionment with the Church and God. But in the end it was the kindness and support from the friends I made from a Catholic students’ society that made me realise that the prejudice was wrong, that people like me have a place in the Church, that if a belief in God has made these people treat me with kindness then perhaps this idea is really worth believing.
May we be always be compassionate to those who are suffering not only physically, but also emotionally and psychologically.
References and Resources
Depression and Suicide — A Catholic Perspective. An essay about the misconceptions and stigma surrounding depression and suicide. Written by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatrist and co-author of The Catholic Guide to Depression, a book about depression from a Catholic perspective.
Black Dog Days: How to Deal with Depression. A post on how to deal with major depressive disorder as a Catholic. Sensitively written from the perspective of someone who has gone through MDD.
Suicide and the Catholic moral tradition. An article about destigmatising suicide driven by mental illness.
Articles about saints who struggled with mental illness are here and here.