MentaI llness in light of the Catholic View of the Human Person
Before we begin to define mental illness which is such a broad term, a few distinctions have to me made. First, there is a difference between the biochemical and even genetical diagnosed clinical mental diosorder and one which is the situational and environmental mental illness symptomology. So for better terminology, we will call the first kind organic mental illness and the second, moral & disordered symptoms which are affected directly by the choices we make, the choices other make towards us or our experiences from stress and trauma that happen as we live. Please allow me to say straight out: I am not saying that organic mental illness is caused by sin. However, making poor decisions may contribute to its difficulty and disallow healing and recovery.
Most of the current clinical and secular culture around mental health does not believe in the immortal soul which according to St. Thomas Aquinas (in his great work the Summa Theologica), is rational in nature. Most clinicians also do not recognize sinful human nature as fallen which is in need of redemption. That being said, in terms of moral theology, certain actions that we do are wrong and harmful to our body, mind and souls. To ignore this fact when speaking about mental illness, totally misses the point around proper healing and wellness. To speak and embrace one's "Recovery", one must take these considerations into consideration.
Mental Illness goes directly to asking the question about the basic make-up of human nature. In other words, what does it mean to be human? We have a certain dignified humanity that can not be changed or impaired. According to traditional Catholic teaching, every person is unique, precious and unrepeatable. (I learned this years ago when I was studying theology in the seminary;click link above to be taken to the source) Simply put, there will never be another you. The great saint, Pope John Paul II says it best: "Who ever suffers from mental ilness "ALWAYS" bears God's image and likeness in himself, as does every human being."1
Bearing God's Image- All are invited into " Relationship"
What does this mean? Let's extrapulate and expound from the saintly pope's words. First, let's look at the word "Image". This comes from Genesis 2:7. When God breathed into the ground man became a living soul. That living soul shares in some of the qualities of God himself. How? Man's soul is an eternal soul that never dies nor can it be destroyed. (In this sense, Mankind is like God) Frank Sheed in his Introducation to Theology calls it: "man's spiritual soul." Another popular word for it is "man's immortal soul". (Humanity's sharing in the quality that came from God himself) One can now make the argument that because we have been created by God in His Image, and we are like Him in this way; then, we are called by the virtue of justice to an intimate relationship with Him.
This brings us to the word: "Likeness": How is man like God? He shares in two other qualities which is a gift from God and has the result of the freedom for humanity. These are our capacity to know and love, known formely as the intellect and will. In theology and philospohy, they are known as the spiritual faculties of the soul. They are denied by some modern psychologists but here we are talking about how the soul uses the body to bring about humanness. These terms will directly co-relate to our definition of mental illness later.
"Likeness" In the Intellect"
The Power of the Intellect: (dictionary.com definitions)
To Think: direct one's mind toward someone or something; use one's mind actively to form connected ideas.
To Reason: the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic. it is based on subjective information (personal observation) or objective information (based on doctrine and law natural or Divine).
To Learn: gain or acquire knowledge of or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taugh. (to memorize, to study and to practice)
All of these functions come about soley by the fact we are share in the Likeness of God possessing a rational immortal soul.
"Likeness" in the Will
The second part of how we are in the "likeness of God" is through the power of the Will. With the Will, we make deliberate decisions we act on. The Will is in charge of ourselves. It allows us to move towards or away from good and evil. Also, the Will allows what we decide and what to think or not to think about.
Emotions push on the Will but ultimattely the Will makes its decision based on those this influences or not. Ultimately, it is the power of the Will that decides what we do. Reason informs the Will of a judgement (the thing to do) and the Will makes the decion of what it is going to act on. The Catholic Encylopedia states that when the will acts, it's free; there is an interaction of the intellect, the will, the senses, the feelings, etc. (New Advent.org)
Basically we relate to person, places and things in and through our thoughts, our words and our deeds (what we do). That's all we have to work with on a human level and all these things make up the normal functions of what it is to be human. The soul uses the body as the means to accomplish these things.
The Effect of Mental Illness on the Rational Soul
Enter mental illness and it can change all of what we have spoken. It can interupt the connections between the soul and the body. For example, hallucinations are sensory perceptive disorders which can come through any of the five senses which inherentely makes up or distorts a person's reality, This could be caused by a many of number of things. These mental disorders interupt a person's ability to function as a health normal human being given the powers of the soul and the functioning of a healthy body. Depression also can sometimes interupt the ability of the will to function and be guided by the intellect and the other facilites properly.
Does this make sense? We have now can understand how mental illness can severly impact our humanity. And how complex and difficult it can be next to impossible to limit mental illness to a single definition in terms. And later we can talk about assessing when mental illness takes over a person's ability to act, is the person responsible for his or her actions?
The catholic Bishops in California wrote a Pastoral Letter on mental illness. They remind us that: "Even those who do not have serious mental health problems can, to some extent, understand the experience of those who do: for not one of us is entirely free from periods of anxiety, emotional distress, troubling or intrusive thoughts, or strong temptations. Every human being is psychologically wounded by the effects of original sin and beset by human weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We recognize that the experience of serious or chronic mental illness is unique and should not be trivialized; yet, when we address this issue, we need to overcome an attitude of “us” and “them,” which separates us one from another. Anyone may struggle with mental health problems; some require clinical attention or special forms of assistance. Even those who attend to the needs of others, including the pastors of the Church, are “wounded healers”: each of us is imperfect before God and in need of Christ’s redemptive grace." (Click here for full document)