Jesus's Mental Health Crisis and Ours
Jesus Exerienced and Redeemed Mental Suffering
Sometimes we forget that Jesus periodically underwent a mental health strain. He grieved when the disciples could not understand him. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and over Jerusalem. In his agony in the garden, he cried out in mental anguish. He said, “My soul is sorrowful unto death”. He even experienced a physical reaction to his mental anguish as his sweat became like drops of blood (hematidrosis). At the height of his torment on the cross, he cried out: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). He entered into that human experience and redeemed it. In doing so, he made it possible for us to offer our mental stress as a powerful prayer of redemptive suffering. Pope Saint John Paul II said: “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.”
The Catholic Understanding of the Human Person
Spiritual health and psychological health are not identical and faith does not magically immunize us from mental health problems. In fact there have been Saints who have suffered from mental illness. St. Louis Martin, father of St. Therese of Lisieux suffered from dementia and paranoia and Venerable Matt Talbot suffered from addiction. These are just two examples.This helps us to see that religious or spiritual therapy is never a substitute for medical treatment of mental illnesses. However, from the Catholic point of view, professional psychological help, on its own, is never enough to treat people who are spirit and matter.
The human being is a body/soul composite, made in the image and likeness of God. We can’t reduce the human person to a purely material being who’s mental health has only to do with neuro-cognitive activity. From the Catholic perspective, humans have an intellect which is a faculty of the soul and we have a brain which operates through the cognitive process. Those two are not the same. We know from near death experiences that people who were brain dead were able to comprehend and perceive reality.
As the catechism says, “…’soul’ also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image. The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC 363-365). “A psychology rooted in the Catholic understanding of the human person is not only true to science, but true to God.” -Gladys Sweeney
Our Current Mental Health Crisis
In 2019-2020, 20.78% of adults were experiencing a mental illness. That is equivalent to over 50 million Americans.
15.35% of adults had a substance use disorder in the past year. Of them, 93.5% did not receive any form of treatment.
Millions of adults in the U.S. experience serious thoughts of suicide, with the highest rate among multiracial individuals. The percentage of adults reporting serious thoughts of suicide is 4.84%, totaling over 12.1 million individuals. 11% of adults who identified with two or more races reported serious thoughts of suicide in 2020 – 6% higher than the average among all adults.
Over 1 in 10 youth in the U.S. are experiencing depression that is severely impairing their ability to function at school or work, at home, with family, or in their social life. 16.39% of youth (age 12-17) report suffering from at least one major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year. 11.5% of youth (over 2.7 million youth) are experiencing severe major depression. There has been a sharp rise in teens with gender dysphoria and transgenderism. Even if it is due to the social contagion or peer pressure, it is still a mental health crisis.
God Knows What We Need
We have a God that has been there and done that. He has entered our human weakness so that we can be strong. He has had mental suffering so that he could proactively fortify it from the inside out. He has given us a religion which knows how to build our health as a whole person, body, mind and soul. Mary, in her great song of praise, the Magnificat, said, “He has filled the hungry with good things” (Lk 1:53). And finally, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).
Those statistics showed that we are currently undergoing a mental health crisis while simultaneously the numbers of those who practice Catholic Faith are in decline. While it’s true that correlation is not causation, it’s worth asking whether there is a relationship between the two.
Can Catholic Faith fortify our mental health? Could it be therepeutic for those suffering from a mental health crisis?
Yes, having a Catholic lifestyle is beneficial to your mental health. It’s one of those things that we know intuitively but we would need to really think about and do a little research to articulate. After looking into it, I have discovered that there are many connections between our Faith and our mental well being which are backed up by studies and statistical data. Here are five ways our Catholic religion helps our mental health.
1. The gift of meaning and purpose.
Perceived lack of meaning in human lives negatively impacts mental health.The story of the Bible insists that life has meaning and that every human life is meaningful. We are able to situate our lives within a grand story of creation, sin and redemption. We accept that evil is a part of our world and we are able to identify it and deal with it. We think of God as a plan maker and a designer who meticulously and willfully brought us into existence. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for peace and not disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11). Every Catholic ought to have the ‘reason for living confidence’ that Newman had, “God has created me to do him some definitive service…I have my mission.” -St. Cardinal Newman
2. The gift of prayer, gratitude and hope.
When we pray we come out of ourselves. We break out of the self-imposed prison of narcissism, pride and self-pity. The scriptures give us the words we need to express how we feel. For example, frustration is expressed in Job 3:25-26, “Everything I fear and dread comes true. I have no peace, no rest,and my troubles never end”. Gratitude is expressed in Psalm 138, “I give thanks to you with all my heart, Lord. I sing your praise…” (Psalm 138). Studies show, when gratitude is developed we manage stress and prayer helps us to develop an attitude of surrender which is a useful coping skill.
3. The gift of celebrating liturgy, rituals and rites of passage.
There is an innate mental health need to mark and celebrate key moments in life. Our liturgical calendar and sacramental life serve Catholics well. They mark the passage of time, and create a tempo to keep up with the rhythms of life. We celebrate in a communal way our birth (Baptism), moving into adulthood (Confirmation), weekly gatherings (Eucharist), forgiveness (Confession), marriage and death (Anointing of the Sick and funeral rites). These moments are therapeutic, healing, and have a positive impact on our mental health and well-being. Studies have shown that cultural and religious rituals help to maintain social cohesion, compliance with moral norms and clarify our social standing within a community. These feast days and holy seasons celebrated within a parish community create a sense of belonging and identity instilling a sense of pride, and self-worth.
4. The gift of interior peace given in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and extending forgiveness to others.
Perhaps there is nothing more therapeutic than hearing the words of absolution after making a good confession. Our Catholic Faith assures us that God desires to forgive sins and heal wounds caused by human failings. With the grace of divine forgiveness we are unburdened from self-loathing, guilt, and shame. The ‘Our Father’ when said regularly can help us to habituate the virtue of empathy, understanding and forgiveness: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. As we forgive others, we are freed from anger, bitterness, hatred and revenge. Multiple studies have shown that practicing the teaching of forgiveness is good for our health. It lowers the risk of heart attack; Improves cholesterol levels and sleep; reduces pain, reduces blood pressure and levels of anxiety, alleviates depression and stress.
5. The gift of the command to love our neighbor.
Christian Service is a hallmark of the Catholic Faith. “Love others as I have loved you”- Jesus. Our love is expressed when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and bury the dead.. “For it is in giving that we receive.” – Saint Francis of Assisi. Service, freely given, improves mental health. It combats the tendency towards narcissism, reduces stress, combats depression, prevents feeling Isolated. increases confidence and happiness.
If you or someone you know is undergoing a mental health challenge seek professional help. Whether through therapy or through spirituality, it is always Christ who heals.