Over the next few weeks I am going to address the 4 aspects of holistic health: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Since it’s Mental Health Awareness Week I’m going to start with Mental Health. While most people would think of health and jump to physical first, there is a lot in the other aspects I mentioned that affects physical health (did you know that trauma may impact weight gain? I bet you didn’t) and so it seems worth starting with it even regardless of the date of publication. Not a day goes by that The Discourse on Twitter touches on mental health, and it usually involves a great deal of stigma and misunderstanding of what mental health means. We often spiritualise mental health, perhaps because real spiritual issues manifest in a similar way, but we fail to realise the ways in which mental health affects our spirituality (here’s an article on the impact of psychological defenses). It doesn’t even have to fall under the category of mental illness, all of us can have wounds in the past that distort the way we see God even when we know the truth about Him. It’s great that more and more Catholic psychologists are speaking up.
Someone interviewed by Mary Rezac for Crux Now said it best in my opinion:
“We are so comfortable as Catholics talking about theology of the body and human dignity, but what about theology of the mind? I think Catholics with mental health problems can pave a way to balancing the spiritual and the practical by being vulnerable. The problem I have seen is that we lean one way or the other in our world, and we need both.”
So, what would a theology of the mind look like? Unsurprisingly, we see a discussion of this topic from the very author of the TOB, St Pope John Paul II. The Theological Framework of The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) quotes twice from his address to the International Conference for Health Care Workers, on Illnesses of the Human Mind on November 30, 1996. He said:
“Whoever suffers from mental illness ‘always’ bears God’s image and likeness in themselves, as does every human being. In addition, they ‘always’ have the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also to be treated as such.”
“Christ took all human suffering on himself, even mental illness. Yes even this affliction, which perhaps seems the most absurd and incomprehensible, configures the sick person to Christ and gives him a share in his redeeming passion”
We see in his words that he reaffirms our dignity as human beings made in the image of God, something that the feelings of worthlessness typical of things like depression challenge. This should be the basis not just of how we approach care for others, but also of why we need to reach out for help if we need it. And we are told in no uncertain terms that our suffering is real, and as such we share in Christ’s suffering for us on the Cross in the way that we share in it through physical illness and pain. This interview with the priest and the psychiatrist who jointly wrote “The Catholic Guide to Depression” focuses on this specific illness, but a lot of it is applicable to other diagnoses. I think it’s best if you take the time to read it for yourself than if I were to try and summarise it, because it’s really rich and insightful.
So, what does mental health actually means? I already alluded to how it’s closely linked to emotional and spiritual health, and the interview again reinforces that there are multiple factors at play and no illness ever looks the same in different people (not even physical ones). The basic definition of it is that mental health is the state of one’s mind. It can be good, bad, or downright ill. It’s closely connected with emotional health, but there are physiological aspects to mental health that have driven practitioners of holistic health to make a distinction. Emotional health is our “ability to accept and manage feelings through challenge and change”. If you don’t have it, it will affect your mental health, but also if you have a mental illness then your ability to manage emotions will be impacted. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation.
As always, the first place to start is prayer, both you praying and having others pray for you, and the sacraments. Bishop Philip Egan has released a pastoral letter on healing and deliverance back in 2019 which I think is a great resource to understand one of the ministries of the Church which is growing in popularity again after being for a long time confined to the fringes (that is, the Charismatic Renewal). However, it’s not unusual that God will answer these prayers with ordinary means of healing like medications and therapy. The truths of reason are not in opposition to the truths of faith because anything true has its origin in God (don’t you just love Fides et Ratio?), and science is just another way in which we approach God’s Creation. And I’m a broken record when it comes to mentioning how the Baltimore Catechism (1154) warns us about expecting miracles when ordinary means to achieve something exist.
If you think God is guiding you in that direction but you’re not sure, talk about it with your spiritual director, the parish priest, or someone trusted who is a solid person of prayer. There are a number of resources that are Catholic or safe for Catholics on the websites of most Bishop’s Conferences, or dedicated ones like the Catholic Mental Health Project for England and Wales. The most important thing is that, as a Catholic, you should consider mental health as important as physical health because we were entrusted with the care of God’s Creation and we are God’s creation too. What it will take for you to be healthy in mind may not be the same as me, but it’s your responsibility to pray and discern your needs and ask God for what you need, and be open to whatever way He sees fit to meet these needs. Don’t assume that things are a certain way until you are sure that your intuition is you hearing the voice of God and not something else. In the words of St Ignatius of Loyola, test the spirits.
Tommy Tighe’s short and sweet episodes of St Dympha’s Playbook, a podcast that addresses issues with mental health together with praying for each other and learning about the saints and their battles with sensitivity, compassion, and humour.
Dr. Gerry Crete and Dr. Peter Malinoski’s Souls and Hearts project. They have a blog which I have linked up twice in this post alone, some courses, a podcast/vlog and weekly email reflections bridging psychology and Catholicism. I love their podcast/vlog, Be with the Word, which looks at the Sunday Mass readings through the lenses of psychology. The recent one on the barriers to recognising Jesus is a must-hear.
If you live in London, the Wilfrid Faber Counselling and Support Service is a charity based at the Brompton Oratory which offers counseling to people regardless of their faith on a donation basis. It’s advertised in the parish newsletter and if the counselors deem you need spiritual guidance they refer you to the Fathers so here you have proof that psychology is not a thing just for those who are too liberal and do not take the faith seriously. It’s trad to get help if you need it.
Rooted in the Word
“Therefore prepare your minds for action;a] discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.”
1 Peter 1:13-21
New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.