Mental illness is incredibly prevalent in the United States, affecting more than one in five adults. However, those who suffer are often faced with stigma, and fail to receive proper treatment. The results – social, economic, medical – are severe. Not least of these is suicide, rates of which have rapidly increased over the past few decades. And over 90% of those who die by suicide show symptoms of a mental health conditions.
When it comes to mental illness, no Catholic is left unaffected. By virtue of our common Baptism, we are members of one Body. We must work harder to welcome, understand and care for those who suffer.
Last year, the bishops of California produced a pastoral letter on hope and healing. It provides guidance for how the Church and her members should care for those who suffer from mental illness.
Calling mental illness a “tragic form of misery and sorrow,” the bishops state that every human being is “psychologically wounded.” As such, we should act as “wounded healers” in our care for who suffer from mental illness. Toward this end, the bishops enumerate six principles.
Christ calls us to attend to those who suffer from mental illness and provide hope and healing.
The bishops recall that the ministry of Jesus Christ was one of hope and healing. Every human person is created in the image of God, with an inherent dignity not diminished by any form of illness. Those with mental illnesses are often isolated by stigma; our duty as Christians is to “encounter them, accompany them, comfort them and help bear their burdens in solidarity with them.”
The scope and burden of mental illness in our society is enormous.
Citing statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, the bishops shed light on the high incidence and tragic burden of mental illness in the United States. In particular, this rising crisis has devastating effects among young people and those who struggle with drug addiction. The bishops link these problems to the “epidemic of profound loneliness,” exacerbated by a breakdown of the bonds of social life.
“These social trends give greater urgency to the Church’s mission of evangelization, our work to support family life and early childhood development, and our outreach to those on the peripheries. We likewise need to give particular attention to assisting those who are single, widowed, divorced, or socially marginalized.”
Those suffering mental illness should not be stigmatized or judged.
The bishops “clearly proclaim that there is no shame” in suffering from mental illness. It is not a moral failing, a flaw in character, or lack of faith or willpower. Dignity, and the chance for healing, always remains intact.
Strikingly, the bishops cite a number of holy men and women — St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, St. Francis of Rome, and St. Josephine Bakhita – who “suffered from mental disorders or severe psychological wounds” to show that deep religiosity does not eliminate the risk of mental illness. Though a life of faith within the Church offers hope, suffering is ultimately a mystery. It cannot always be understood or fixed, but is redeemed by the cross.
The Church, health care professionals and scientific researchers should work together to improve mental health care.
Here, the bishops call for all to take part in collaborative efforts to address mental illness. They celebrate programs in California parishes aimed at helping those who suffer, as well as their families. But the bishops explain that everyone is called to contribute to these efforts. We must work to overcome the false divide between science and religion. We must bridge the gap between health care and pastoral care.
Because the human person is an inseparable unity of body and soul, the whole person must be treated in cases of mental illness.
“Good science that recognizes the life and dignity of people and the Catholic faith are never at odds. Medical science has discovered many useful treatments to help those with mental illness, and Catholics should welcome and make use of these… At the same time, we cannot neglect the role of pastoral care and spiritual direction. The sacramental life of the Church… [and] spiritual practices—while they do not entirely prevent or cure mental illness—can reduce the risk of mental health problems and can assist in recovery.”
We must meet and attend to those in need where they are.
The bishops invite us to move “beyond our zone of comfort and familiarity.” In response to Pope Francis’ exhortation to go to the margins, we must take proactive steps to see, hear, and understand the experiences of those who suffer. The cost of mental illness, thus, is to be “borne by the entire Christian community and by all people of goodwill.”
Importantly, the bishops identify prisons as “the nation’s largest mental health care facilities,” and acknowledge high rates of illness among homeless populations. They call all Catholics, in particular clergy members, to enter into these and other places of brokenness and not hold back out of fear.
Those impacted by suicide need our compassionate response.
Finally, the bishops address the “heartbreaking tragedy of suicide, particularly among those who are young.” They affirm that mental illness can impair judgment such that anguish proves fatal. While of course the Church teaches that suicide is against God’s will, she also recognizes that psychological factors can diminish responsibility. As such, the bishops offer words of comfort to those who have lost loved ones to suicide, and invoke the mercy of Christ’s heart for the souls of the departed.
We live in a fallen world, and this is evident in our human brokenness. But because of the Incarnation, God meets us “in our suffering, our illness, and our affliction.” And we have faith that we, too, will be raised with Him. The document ends with a hopeful affirmation of our destiny:
Our Catholic faith provides us with this consolation and this firm hope, which strengthens our resolve: In eternity with God, every beautiful thing in our lives that is now unfinished will be completed, all the good that is scattered will be gathered together, everything that is lost will be found, all hopes that are now thwarted will be realized and all that is broken will finally be restored.