Mental health and the alarming rise of suicides among young people–most wouldn’t consider these to be the most romantic of topics to discuss on a date. But Valentine’s Day 2021 is like no other–we’re in the middle of a global pandemic that has already shaken up the norms that we’re accustomed to. So, hey, why not? A Valentine’s Day New York Encounter panel of speakers took up the question of what mental illness is and is not, how it can it be addressed, and whether the wave of suicides are something merely to be “fixed”–or “are there other more fundamental questions that need to be answered?”
The panel, moderated by Princeton Theological Seminary professor Margarita Mooney, featured a not-so-conventional array of speakers who brought their unique perspectives into the conversation. Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a professor of Psychiatry at UCI School of Medicine, spoke from his experience of having studied mental illness from a medical point of view as well as from having worked with patients in a clinical setting. Dr. Mary Townsend spoke from her experience with students as a professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University, and comedian Jeremy McLellan (who brought down the virtual house the previous evening during the 2020 roast “When You Hit Reality”) spoke from his experience of having dealt with his own depression.
“The danger for contemporary psychiatrists is to reduce everything to the disease model and forget about the role of freedom and rationality. . . or reduce everything to a kind of chemical imbalance in the brain,” said Dr. Kheriaty. He went on to explain the way that his belief in concepts like original sin, redemption, and the virtues allows him to understand the nuances of how mental illnesses can come about and impact people’s lives.
“Human beings are complex. And I think there’s a tendency today to understand mental illness only in terms of what’s happening in the cranium.” As a psychiatrist, he recognizes how prescribing medication can be effective and often life-saving, “but, at the same time, I think that the thicker and richer Christian anthropology allows us to appreciate mental illness in much more depth.”
Mary Townsend recounted her experience of teaching through two traumatic suicide clusters. Her university’s response was to “basically ignore it, pretend it wasn’t happening, and speak about it as little as possible. That was basically their plan for helping the community heal and it didn’t work.” She found that reading Christian existentialist writers with her students like Kierkegaard and Walker Percy helped them to engage in meaningful discussions about the reality of death and the feeling of alienation–from ourselves, from the world, and from God.
She challenged the idea that young people who question life’s value ought to be “roped off,” as if something were wrong with them. Instead, she posited that there’s something wrong if we don’t ask those kinds of questions. Townsend went on to highlight Walker Percy’s assertion that the first task of all humans is to face that sense of alienation.
“The thing is that students tend to want to be able to give themselves a way to think about these big questions, but they feel so pressured to get good grades and only take classes that influence their job prospects.” This is why it’s so important that “we think about philosophical and theological education as a way of dealing together as a community with what these questions mean to us.”
While these topics aren’t particularly light or humorous, Jeremy McLellan found that comedy has enabled him to explore how his own depression is connected to his questions about sin and human finitude. Psychological counseling has helped him to grow in the virtue of prudence and to “interpret the world correctly.” While discussing the difference between confession and therapy, McLellan–a recent convert to Catholicism–emphasized the importance of recognising when a sin stems from mental illness and not from an act of will.
Dr. Mooney, who shared her own experience of working with students who have contemplated suicide, expressed the importance of accompanying people toward the answers to their questions about life’s ultimate meaning and witnessing to the fact that the sensation of depression or alienation is not the end of the story.
She closed the panel by asking, “What should you say, and what should you not say, to someone who has lost someone to suicide? How do you communicate that unity, that hope, that love, to someone whose life has been marked by the tragic loss of suicide?”
“Have respect for someone in great suffering, that you can’t explain or analyze,” suggested Townsend. “Know that they have seen something of the vastness of the world that is terrifying, and so have respect for that feeling and sit with it.”
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