Even great saints experienced mental illness; the Church has resources to help those who suffer
By Bob Hunt
The statistics on mental health in the United States are sobering.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 52.9 million adults, or 21 percent of the adult population, experience a mental illness, including 14.2 million who suffer a severe mental illness, meaning that it significantly impacts their ability to function well in their daily living.
Less than half of those with mental illness receive any kind of treatment. Reasons for not receiving treatment include lack of medical care, denial on the part of the mental health sufferer, lack of a support system for the person experiencing mental illness, the negative stigma still associated with mental illness, lack of adequate insurance, poverty, and living in a rural community where mental health services are sparse. NIMH estimates that just under 50 percent of adolescents experience mental illness, including 22 percent who have severe impairment. Unfortunately, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 21 percent of adolescents with mental illness receive any kind of treatment.
The consequences of mental illness can be tragic. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and the second-leading cause of death among those 10-34 years old. There have been many headlines reporting the increase in crime rates across the country, especially homicide, and that is a genuine concern. Suicide, however, accounts for more than twice as many deaths in the United States as homicide. The World Health Organization reports that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a 25 percent increase in the incidence of anxiety and depression worldwide.
Those are the cold statistics, or at least some of them. What help is available to those who experience mental illness? The two most prevalent treatments are therapy and medication. There is an abundance of research demonstrating the efficacy of various types of therapy and of medications to help treat mental illness.
No one need suffer alone. Family members, friends, pastors, teachers, co-workers, doctors should all be supportive and encouraging of those who experience mental illness and desire help. Catholics should know that the Church fully supports both therapy and appropriate medications to combat mental illness. Catholics should also know of their obligation to support their family members, friends, and confreres who struggle with mental illness. Catholic Charities offers professional counseling to individual adults and couples, of all faiths and none, on a sliding scale, so cost should not be a concern. Many parishes offer grief and caregiver support groups.
Mental illness is no barrier to sanctity. Some of our great saints have suffered mental illness. Many know of Venerable Matt Talbot, the Irish laborer who suffered with alcoholism. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, a respected layman in 19th-century China, became addicted to opium after treatment for a stomach ailment. He confessed it regularly, until his priest told him he lacked true repentance and would not give him absolution. For 30 years he went to Mass but never received Holy Communion. Still addicted to opium, he was martyred with his family during the Boxer Rebellion and was canonized in 2000.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux endured extreme fears and anxieties and at least one mental breakdown, while her father, St. Louis Martin, developed dementia late in life, including hallucinations and paranoia, requiring admission to a psychiatric hospital. St. Oscar Romero carried the burden of scrupulosity. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he received help through counseling and psychoanalysis. St. Jane Frances de Chantel’s depression was triggered by the death of her husband. St. Benedict Joseph Labre was dismissed from his monastery because of neuroses. His abbot “feared for his reason.”
Sanctuary is a course on mental health from a Catholic perspective. It has been offered at some parishes and is available on FORMED.org. The course helps Catholics see mental illness through the lens of faith, with reflections on Scripture and Church teaching, and interviews with those who experience mental illness, as well as therapists, theologians, and bishops. It is an excellent way for Catholics to gain a better understanding of mental illness and empathy for those with mental illness.
Pope St. John Paul II said, “Whoever suffers from mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being. In addition, he always has 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.” Jesus was a healer. As Catholics, we should follow His example and do what we can to provide healing for those who hurt.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.
Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville and is a candidate for the permanent diaconate.