BECOMING ALL THINGS TO ALL MEN
Sonia Kurian explores the stigma and the shame surrounding mental health issues among communities, and offers guidance on treatment and support for the individuals suffering and their families.
As Catholics involved in various apostolates of the Church, it may not be a rare occurrence to find yourself as part of the frontline encountering individuals or families needing assistance with counseling, therapy or mental breakdowns. Knowing how to address and direct issues having to do with mental health can be a useful tool in our arsenal. A tool that helps with the healing of individuals and their families, thus rebuilding the community that makes up the body of Christ.
Mental health is a vital part of the total health of an individual. To be in a sound emotional and psychological state is what enables us to think of ourselves in a healthy way, and interact with our society in a healthy manner as well. Just like physical health, mental health can also have its ups and downs, as life stressors appear over a person’s lifetime. Such variations don’t necessarily indicate mental illness either, only a mental state that may need some extra care and attention. Paying attention to signs such as feeling miserable or socially isolated can help identify those who may need some care and rest to restore a healthy and balanced mental state in no time.
Mental illness on the other hand, can refer to a range of disorders that affect the thinking, behaviors and moods of an individual irrespective of gender, religion, race, age or socio-economic status. It is caused by a multitude of factors, including but not limited to biological factors such as brain chemistry or genetics, history of abuse or trauma, or family history of mental illness and so on. For this reason, it is not something that one can simple “shake off” or “snap out of” or “pray away” or overcome by sheer willpower.
St. Pope John Paul II once 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.” We should acknowledge that a strong stigma might exist regarding mental illness not just in our religious spheres, but within the wider Asian community as well. This is why it’s important for us as members of the body of Christ, to recognize the dignity and value inherently present in those struggling with such illnesses, and treat them with a love that desires the best for them.
Often those struggling with mental illness and their families are going through a time of intense pain and suffering, where they are trying to figure out the root causes and patterns involved in the illness, and the best way to help and cope with such an illness; while also trying to live out the hustle and bustle of daily life. Such situations are not helped by gossip, stigma or shaming by the communities they are a part of – communities who can help make their lives smoother, instead of hurting them or making them feel further isolated. Communities who can help by making them feel welcome at church, or inviting the kids to playdates and parties, instead of poking and prodding with no intent of helping and only to gather news, or refraining from any human contact or kindness, as if they had ‘plague’. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prayed during the 2006 World Day of the Sick, we must practice “special solicitude to the suffering of people with mental illness” and “bear witness to the tender mercy of God toward them.”
It’s important for us as members of the body
of Christ, to recognize the dignity and value
inherently present in those struggling with
such illnesses, and treat them with a love
that desires the best for them.
Now generally, mental illness tends to fall under the following categories: Depression, Anxiety disorders, Mood/Bipolar disorders, Personality disorders, Schizophrenia, Trauma disorders, Eating disorders and Addictive behaviors. Signs and symptoms of mental illness vary, but may include changes in sleep, appetite, and energy level, severe mood swings, persistent thoughts or compulsions, hearing voices, social withdrawal, feeling sad, hopeless or agitated, having trouble performing everyday tasks, or wanting to hurt oneself or others.
Getting an individual struggling with mental illness the right therapy and treatment can help them recover their mental health. Often for many people, recognizing that a problem exists and a willingness to accept help are the first hurdle to overcome. Friends, family and community members can be vital in getting such individuals the help and service they need. Helping the individuals and families feel safe to seek out help can be incredibly valuable, since the social fear and stigma surrounding mental illness can deter people from seeking help often to their own detriment. It’s important to note that without such simple and systematic treatment and support, a mental illness can continue uncontrolled and perhaps even worsen, further negatively impacting the individual and their families.
Primary care doctors can often be approached and can assist in referring individuals needing help to psychiatrists and other professionals who can give them the mental health treatment they need. Just as physical illness may require medication and therapies to heal, mental illness may also require a similar approach. When one has heart disease, one goes to see a cardiologist, not an exorcist. Similarly, while talking to a priest or spiritual director may be helpful for struggles with mental health, when one struggles with mental illness one needs to approach someone fully equipped and trained to provide the right treatment. Let anyone who doubts God’s hands working through the doctors read Sirach 38, to be assured of God’s providence and blessing through their knowledge and expertise.
For those desiring to seek counseling and therapy, it may be worth considering the abundance of Catholic therapists and counselors available as resources to aid those who need it. Many Catholics prefer to seek out a Catholic therapist, who would respect their religious beliefs and understand their unique perspectives and practices without viewing normal religious rituals as symptoms of an illness or disorder. In addition, websites such as www.catholictherapists.com or www.catholiccounselors.com have search engines that enable you to find a therapist near you. Sometimes, your local priest or bishop could also recommend a good psychiatrist or psychologist for counseling or therapy.
If you or someone you know struggles with mental health or mental illness, here is a list of Catholic saints and patrons who can pray with you: St. Dymphna, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, St. Christina the Astonishing, Ven. Matt Talbot and Our Lady of Lourdes. May their intercession guide those struggling with mental health issues and mental illnesses towards the consoling heart of our Lord, who embraces us with great tenderness, longs to heal our brokenness and make us whole again in His love.