Spiritualizing and moralizing mental health

There once were two priests, called Father Will and Father Wise. They were both of them chaplains at Catholic colleges. One day a young 19-year-old student named Johnny came to Father Will and confessed, tearfully and shaking, that he was afraid. The young man was feeling intrusive and pervading thoughts about ending his own life. He was in constant inner torment and felt additional fear and guilt because he knew that suicide was a mortal sin. And that if you died in a state of mortal sin, you would go to hell.

Fr. Will listened very gravely and then rebuked Johnny for committing the sin of despair. He then commanded him to pray his rosary every day and to attend daily Mass, that God may drive away his “sinful” thoughts. Johnny wept and trembled more but he obeyed. All year long he obeyed and prayed faithfully for God to take away the thoughts that he did not want to think and the pain that he did not choose to feel. He attended daily Mass and prayed his rosary right up to the day he died by suicide at the age of 20. His poor parents were shocked and inconsolable in their anguish.

In a similar manner, one dark night, on another Catholic college campus, a young man named Jack came to see Fr. Wise in the midst of a full blown panic attack. Fr. Wise recognized it for what it was and, after he had helped the young man calm down enough to tell him what was troubling him, he perceived that this young man was being tormented by suicidal ideation. He had been suffering in this way for years, had never seen a therapist, had never told a doctor, and was on no medication. Fr. Wise couldn’t even imagine the pain of trying to white knuckle through such a grave mental health problem all alone for so long.

“How has this young man even survived this long?” he asked himself. The young man didn’t have a car, so Fr. Wise drove Jack to the Emergency Room himself. As Fr. Wise explained to the doctors the nature of the emergency and steadied Jack through the examinations, he prayed silently. They put Jack in a little empty room with a window for them to see into it. As a psychiatrist entered the little room to talk to Jack, Fr. Wise waited outside, took out his rosary and prayed it all through that long, dark night. Night passed into dawn. Dawn would break again and still again for Jack. At first it took a while to adjust and discover which medication would help him. By the grace of God, Jack had a family that loved him deeply and were able to cooperate with Jack’s doctor. Jack would need years of therapy but he persevered. All the while, Fr. Wise prayed, and counseled and consoled him and his family.

Nine years later, when Jack was to get married, he asked Fr. Wise to witness their vows. Several years after that, Fr. Wise baptized Jack’s firstborn. And it was on this occasion that Jack’s mother wept tears of gratitude and said to Fr. Wise, “You saved my son’s life that night, many years ago. Without your compassion and good sense, I wouldn’t be holding my grandson today.”

Fr. Wise responded, “It was the God of Mercy and Compassion who sees and feels all of our sufferings who saved your son. I only tried to do as He guided me.”

What was the difference for the young men in this parable between salvation and tragedy? What made the difference in a matter of life and death?

The vital difference was that one priest fatally misdiagnosed the problem. Fr. Will was not trained to recognize that the problem the young man had was not a moral problem — or even a spiritual problem. It was a mental health problem. Therefore, he prescribed spiritual remedies and moralized, leaving the grave mental illness completely untreated, to the detriment of Johnny’s health.

Catholics can sometimes think the root of every problem is spiritual or that prayer alone can solve anything and everything. This is an incredibly dangerous attitude to have and not one supported by Church teaching.

Another problem is that both of these patients should have been seeking help from a psychiatrist or the hospital, but instead went to a priest. Sadly, this happens in real life far too often. Part of the reason this happens is because often people raised Catholic are trained to trust priests from such a young age. Another part  is that Catholics can sometimes think the root of every problem is spiritual or that prayer alone can solve anything and everything. This is an incredibly dangerous attitude to have, and not one supported by Church teaching.

Catholics need to retrain themselves to take some of the burden off of their clergy to deal with problems that are not in their training and not part of their job description. Clergy, in turn, need to have the transparency and humility to know and accept the limitations of what they were taught in seminary and what they’ve learned on the job. They are approached and often offer help as marriage counselors, family counselors, and poor man’s life coaches all rolled into one. But the counseling methods and knowledge can be hit or miss, depending upon what the training program or data was available when the priest was in the seminary or how many books he’s read.

Due to the level of trauma students can experience in college, college chaplains absolutely need to be trained to respond appropriately to crisis situations.

If you’ve already seen a doctor and a therapist about mental health problems and additionally want the guidance of a priest, this is when priests have the opportunity to shine because they are doing their job as spiritual guides and comforters to the sorrowing, not bearing the burden of healing a psychological or medical ailment. And if a crime has been committed in your family, never wait till your pastor can pencil you in for an appointment to do something about it. Call the authorities. Parish priests are not policemen, family court judges, criminal investigators, lawyers, social workers, CPS or trauma specialists either. Additonally, due to the level of trauma students can experience in college, college chaplains absolutely need to be trained to respond appropriately to crisis situations.

Physical medical problems are recognized as largely having to do with genetics, physics, immune systems, organ failure, etc. Mental health needs to be recognized similarly by Catholics as having more to do with serotonin levels, adrenaline, genetics, trauma, and the hippocampus than it has to do with personal morals or spiritual habits. Yes, it is possible that in addition to chemical imbalances, a person could have additional moral or spiritual woes exacerbating the problem. But the physical and the mental health of the patient has to be addressed first by professionals before your next door neighbor decides that you’re not clinically depressed, you just need to read the Bible more!

It’s certainly possible that a prayer for healing could help your friend with chronic anxiety but so can prescription medication and consistent therapy. When a person’s spiritual director works with the doctors and therapists, great good can be accomplished for the patient. However, if spiritual and religious leaders ignore physical and mental health problems in the name of advancing their own moral or spiritual vision of how the world should be, nobody is served, least of all the Church.

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