Like many psychiatrists, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty sees a changing attitude toward mental health issues, but one that is perhaps not changing quickly enough.
Over the past 50 years, science and society have come a long way in understanding mental illnesses and “removing some of the unjust stigma or misconceptions about what these illnesses are and how they happen,” said Dr. Kheriaty, author of “The Catholic Guide to Depression” (Sophia Institute Press, $20).
“We have a better understanding of some of the genetic and biological factors that predispose many people to these illnesses, through no fault of their own,” he said. But he still meets people who are “very afraid that even people close to them would discover that they are seeing a psychiatrist,” he said in an interview with Angelus News.
“It’s not something they’ll disclose to close friends or other family members, because they often meet with incomprehension or misunderstanding. Or a person judges them to be weak of character, or somehow they brought this upon themselves because they’re not praying enough. So I think there’s still work to be done in this regard,” he said.
That’s one reason he’s happy the Catholic bishops of California recently wrote a letter titled “Hope and Healing: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of California on Caring for those who Suffer from Mental Illness.”
The letter comes at a time of growing crises in mental health issues, drug addiction and suicide in the United States. The bishops cite National Institute of Mental Health statistics showing that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. has suffered from a mental disorder over the past year.
Nearly 10 million American adults have a mental illness that is severe enough to cause serious functional impairment, and 20 percent of adolescents currently have, or previously had, a seriously debilitating mental disorder.
“Mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders are the single largest source of disability in the U.S., accounting for nearly 20 percent of all disability,” the bishops wrote. “American society is seeing rising rates of depression and anxiety disproportionately impacting young people.”
In response, Catholics can and should be “sources of hope, strength and healing for those that struggle with mental illness or addiction, and for their families and caregivers,” the bishops urged readers. “We pledge to contribute to these efforts through the Church’s pastoral care, resources and charitable works of mercy.”
The online letter links to resources and programs that serve as models for parishes and communities. But while the bishops recognize the need for science and medicine, they insist that some answers must come from beyond those realms.
“Science cannot answer our deepest and most perplexing human questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Why have I suffered this loss? Why is God allowing this terrible illness?” they wrote.
“These are ultimately religious questions that cannot be ignored or stifled. As St. Augustine wrote, ‘You have created us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Christian faith offers sure hope that speaks to our deepest longings — that our sins can be forgiven, that we can be reconciled to God and to one another, and that even in this life, with all its adversity and pain, we can still find some measure of joy and peace.”
Kheriaty, who teaches at the University of California at Irvine and was a consultant on the bishops’ project, said that the Church leaders “wanted to acknowledge that there are many people out there, including Catholics, who are suffering in a particular way who need the paternal love and support, charity and solidarity of fellow Catholics in order to understand what they’re going through.”
The pastoral letter also recognized that “we’re in a time in our society in which, for a whole host of reasons … the culture is going in a direction that is not conducive to health and human flourishing,” Kheriaty said.
“And because the social fabric is starting to fray, because social bonds, social ties and social capital are weakening, in a regime that thrives in autonomous individualism, many people are suffering the consequences of that.”
Many Americans suffer from profound loneliness, for example, and there’s a rising trend in what’s being called “deaths of despair” — suicides and deaths attributed to alcohol or drug overdoses and alcohol-related illnesses.
“These problems have been with us a long time, but they seem to be getting worse,” Kheriaty said. “Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen a very sharp increase in these problems: suicide rates have gone up among men and women in every age category up to the age of 75. The second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults is suicide, second only to motor vehicle accidents.”
People need to be loved
With extraordinary advances in medicine, people are overcoming medical illnesses like never before, “but we seem to be dying of despair,” Kheriaty lamented.
“We seem to be dying of a lack of basic necessities that people need — not just food, clothing and shelter, but people need other people. People need to be loved, need to be cared for and develop in a healthy family environment, in a healthy school environment and a healthy neighborhood, in a healthy culture that supports and cares about children in the next generation.”
The bishops hope that more and more Catholics will not only be welcoming and compassionate to those who are suffering from mental health issues, but will be more proactive in seeking out those who need help. In that, they can take a cue from Pope Francis.
“Pope Francis encourages Catholics not to remain securely behind the doors of our parishes, but to reach out to everyone, especially those who are marginalized and forgotten,” the letter said.
“People who suffer from severe and persistent mental illnesses are among the most misunderstood, ignored and unjustly stigmatized members of our society. For them, our communities and parishes should be places of refuge and healing, not places of rejection or judgment. Our apostolic work should always bring us to those who are on the peripheries of society. We must venture out to the margins, rather than waiting for the marginalized to come to us.”
The pope speaks frequently of creating a “culture of encounter,” and that is something Catholics can practice with people who suffer from depression or anxiety, addictions or psychological trauma, loneliness or isolation, the bishops suggested.
“We Christians have to get to know people, to befriend them, to listen generously to them, to walk with them,” they wrote.
“This is not because we have all the answers to their problems or can cure all of their afflictions, but simply because these encounters — these small acts of love and compassion, understanding and friendship — are precisely what people need most.”
In the image and likeness of God
The following is an excerpt from “Hope and Healing,” the California bishops’ pastoral letter on mental illness released in May. The full text of the letter can be found at www.cacatholic.org/hope_and_healing.
As Catholics, in imitation of our Lord, we are called to provide hope and healing to others. We profess that every human life is sacred, that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore a person’s dignity and worth cannot be diminished by any condition, including mental illness.
We believe all baptized persons have unique gifts to offer and have a place in the Church, the body of Christ. Thus, we are all called to attend to those in our midst who suffer in body or mind; we pledge to work together with families and loved ones, mental health professionals, community organizations, and all individuals and institutions that engage in this important work.
Persons with mental illness often suffer in silence, hidden and unrecognized by others.
Consider this stark contrast: a person with a medical illness — such as cancer — will usually receive an outpouring of sympathy and support from their parish and community; a person diagnosed with a mental illness — such as depression, crippling anxiety, or bipolar disorder — frequently experiences isolation and inadequate support, often because of the unjust social stigma of mental illness.
This should not be so in our civic communities, and cannot be so in our Catholic communities. Those living with a mental illness should never bear these burdens alone, nor should their families, who struggle heroically to assist their loved ones.
We Christians must encounter them, accompany them, comfort them, and help bear their burdens in solidarity with them — offering our understanding, prayers, and tangible and ongoing assistance.
John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia.org.
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