This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Aaron Kheriaty, MD, a Catholic psychologist, explains the reality of depression and psychological suffering.
Jesus Christ’s ministry is a ministry of healing. Yes, He healed the physical ailments of many while on earth, and has done so through His Body, the Church, on earth too. But these were signs that pointed to the more urgent healing—the wounds caused by sin. We are called in imitation of Christ to carry out that work of healing today.
As so many of you know, those who are afflicted with mental illness often suffer in silence, unrecognized by others. If someone is diagnosed with cancer, this person is typically flooded with sympathy from family and friends, with support from their church, their small group, and so on. If someone suffers from an illness like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, or is bipolar, there’s rarely public mention of the problem due to the stigma of mental illness. This should not be the case. Mental illness is a “legitimate” form of suffering, and the healing of Christ most certainly is for that suffering, too.
I recall one patient, a married Catholic woman with several children and grandchildren, who had suffered from both life-threatening breast cancer and, later, from severe depression. She once told me that, if given the choice, she would choose the cancer over the depression, since the depression caused her far more intense suffering. Though she had been cured of the cancer, she tragically died by suicide a few years after she stopped seeing me for treatment.
“If all truth comes from God, then science and religion can and should be in dialogue, because the truths of science rightly understood, and the truths of religion rightly interpreted, can never contradict one another.”
Those who suffer from mental health problems should not bear this cross alone. As Christians, we need to encounter them, to understand them, and to bear their burdens with them. We should begin with the premise that science and religion, reason and faith, are not opposed and should be united to help the suffering. And we need to use all the tools and all the abilities God has placed at our disposal: medical, psychological, and spiritual. This is true whether we are dealing with physical or mental health problems. Our task is to integrate insights from all these sources—medicine, psychology, Sacred Scripture and theology—in order to understand mental illness and help others to recover from it.
If all truth comes from God, then science and religion can and should be in dialogue, because the truths of science rightly understood, and the truths of religion rightly interpreted, can never contradict one another. Medical science has discovered many treatments to help those with mental illness, and Christians should welcome and make use of these: medications, psychotherapy, and so on. I administer these treatments every day, and they can be life-altering and even lifesaving.
An analogy can be seen in the early Church dealing with advances in philosophy. The famous quip, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” was a dismissal of philosophical achievements for a “scripture alone” approach. But the Church ultimately saw that human reason, though imperfect, is good and a gift from God, and the achievements of philosophy were worth integrating into the life and mind of faith. So too, today, we have learned much from medical and scientific research about the inner workings of the mind and the true ailments that can come, and we have to learn how to discern and use what we have learned.
But for all its wonderful achievements, science alone cannot provide us with all the answers. Indeed, science cannot answer our deepest and most important human questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Why have I suffered this loss? Why is God allowing this illness? These are ultimately religious questions that simply cannot be ignored or repressed. We human beings can’t stop asking these questions.
Even that famous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, who was profoundly anti-religious, recognized the limits of psychotherapy when he wrote that, “It would be absurd for me to say to a patient, ‘I forgive you your sins.’” He recognized that psychotherapy has no such power. Freud once stated flatly that the goal of psychoanalysis was to turn neurotic misery into everyday unhappiness. He thought that this was the best that could be hoped for. But, of course, we human beings typically aspire to more than just everyday unhappiness. And Christianity offers us just such hope—that our sins can be forgiven, that we can be reconciled to God and to one another, and that even in this life, with all its adversity and pain, we can still find some measure of joy and peace. A peace that, even with all of its human achievements, “the world cannot give” (John 14:27).
Psychiatry & Religion
In a 1993 address to a group of psychiatrists, Pope John Paul II said:
By its very nature your work often brings you to the threshold of human mystery. It involves sensitivity to the tangled workings of the human mind and heart, and openness to the ultimate concerns that give meaning to people’s lives. These areas are of the utmost importance to the Church, and they call to mind the urgent need for a constructive dialogue between science and religion.
Many Christians harbor suspicions about psychiatry, and I can understand why. After all, the founding father of psychoanalysis was Freud, famously atheistic, as were many influential psychiatrists who followed him. Freud claimed that religious believers were not just mistaken in their beliefs—they were sick: in his words, religion was the “universal obsessive neurosis of mankind.” Now of course, this was not a scientific conclusion; it was not a discovery of experimental psychology.
It was simply Freud’s own prejudice.
But it must be admitted that this kind of bias against religion has often been found in the history of psychiatry. There is no legitimate reason for this, and it is time now to build bridges.
Clergy, healthcare professionals, and mental health advocates should work together. We need to encourage a “both and” rather than “either-or” approach to healing. When a patient who is a religious believer asks whether he should pray more or take a medication or see a psychotherapist to help with something like depression, my answer will likely be “yes” to all three.
Mental Illness as a Spiritual Trial
Now, while we recognize the mental health benefits of living a Christian life, we also know that religious faith and spiritual practices do not immunize us against mental illness. Christians suffer from these illnesses just like everyone else, so having depression or anxiety or a personality disorder does not mean that a person lacks faith in God. Indeed, many canonized saints and other heroes of the Catholic tradition suffered from severe mental illnesses. St. Benedict Joseph Labre was an 18th Century man who wandered homeless—a sign of our pilgrimage in this world—after being turned away from a number of religious communities due to his serious mental illness. When he died, thousands in Rome turned out for his funeral to celebrate his heroic charity toward the poor, the little he had he gave to others.
He is patron saint of the homeless.
We can think also of the accomplished English poet Girard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, who celebrated faith in his poems like, “The Grandeur of God,” or, “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe.” Hopkins suffered severe and agonizing bouts of melancholic depression during his lifetime.
The need to “listen to the other” is not just for religious people, but for those in my field of medicine as well. Modern medicine has shown that there is a profound connection between the body and the soul: what affects the one has profound effects on the other. In 2003, John Paul II gave an address on the theme of depression. He said, “depression is always a spiritual trial.” Here, he is not denying the medical nature of depression but recognizing that it affects our spiritual life in ways other illnesses might not. This disease is often accompanied by an existential and spiritual crisis that leads to an inability to perceive the meaningfulness of life.
He goes on to stress how both professionals and non-professionals, motivated by Christian charity and compassion, can help those with depression (indeed, his words are applicable to all mental illnesses):
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.
And he concludes:
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.
Small, Great Acts
Even little things matter here. St. Paul tells Christians that, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Even our small and hidden acts of kindness have great significance in eternity. I recounted the following story in my book, The Catholic Guide to Depression:
A few years ago, a man in his thirties committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge (which, by the way, is the #1 suicide spot in the world—over 2000 people have died jumping off this bridge—approximately one every two weeks). Afterwards, this man’s psychiatrist went with the medical examiner to the man’s apartment, where they found the dead man’s diary. The last entry, written just hours before his death, said: “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”
We do not know all that we can be to another person. That smile, that small act of kindness, is hidden with Christ in God. But we do know that mental suffering is real, and Christian compassion and love can bring Christ’s healing to a much needed place.