I am frequently in contact with those who suffer from mental health difficulties and those who love and care for them, and so I take this opportunity to write about this challenging subject this week.
The wonders of the human person
In Psalm 139, we read: “I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works!” These words of King David, written under God’s inspiration, are an accurate commentary on the marvelous reality of every human person, made in the image of God, with a soul that is destined to live forever. For each person Jesus has died so that all who cooperate with Him in the work of salvation may one day enjoy all of its benefits in heaven. This is true of every person and it is this that gives an inspanidual his or her dignity and it is for this reason that the Church tirelessly proclaims the dignity of every person from conception to natural death.
We also know that the human person is a very complex reality. We are composed of physical, spiritual and emotional aspects, which contribute to make each of us a unique person. We also have a share in the mystery of illness, suffering and, eventually, the death of the body. All of these we inherit as sons and daughters of our first parents, through whom we receive our human nature in a wounded state because of their first sin, which we call original.
During His public life, Jesus put to rest the erroneous idea that sickness, suffering and what we call the “imperfections” of an inspanidual person, are particular punishments laid upon that inspanidual or his family as a direct result of their personal sins. In responding to this erroneous view, Jesus said, when confronted with the reality of the man born blind: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:3).
The commentary on this passage in the “Navarre Bible” states: “Suffering, which is so often a factor in the life of the just man, can be a resource God sends him to cleanse him of his imperfections, to exercise him in virtue and to unite him to the sufferings of Christ the Redeemer who, although He was innocent, bore in Himself the punishment our sins merited (cf. Isaiah 53:4; Peter 2:24; 1 John 3:5). For example, Our Lady and St. Joseph and all the saints have experienced intense suffering, thereby sharing in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”
The particular suffering of mental illness
A concept, which has become quite popular in recent years, is what is called “holistic medicine,” the idea being that the health of a person is composed of more that just those aspects which are physical. This is certainly a sound concept and it is consistent with what the Church teaches regarding the totality of the human person, as I briefly explained above.
In that totality, there is a particular form of illness, which is especially challenging to those who struggle with it, and their loved ones: mental illness. Since this mysterious aspect of human suffering is not always visible in a physical manner, it can be particularly difficult to recognize and struggle with. As part of the teaching of Jesus, who embraces the entire person with love, mercy and understanding, the Church also reaches out to those suffering with mental illness with those same sentiments. We know that February 11, the liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, is designated as World Day of the Sick, so that the Church may dwell on and console those who are sharing the sufferings of Jesus in a special way. In 2006, the World Day of the Sick had as its particular focus those who are afflicted with mental health problems.
In his message to those who would participate in that Day, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “On this occasion, the Church intends to bow down over those who suffer with special concern, calling the attention of public opinion to the problems connected with mental disturbance that now afflicts one-fifth of humanity and is a real social-health care emergency” (Message, 8 December 2005).
Complex causes of mental health problems
The very fact that the Holy Father speaks of one-fifth of the world’s population as being afflicted with mental health disturbances tells us that we are dealing with a very complex problem. This article is certainly not meant to be a scientific, but a pastoral approach, to this challenging issue of our day.
Very simply, we can acknowledge that mental health disturbances can come from many sources: they can be hereditary, they can be caused by extreme stress, they can be the result of chemical imbalances and they can even be one of the results of our society which has seen the lessening of those structures that are meant to bring us support and encouragement. The instability of marriage in modern society; the lack of extended family members who once brought assistance and security to other family members and the economic challenges that have often removed the security that was once found in secure employment can all contribute to these mental health disturbances.
We certainly want to acknowledge the care and expertise of mental health professionals. At times, medications may be given, which are a genuine help to those suffering from some sort of mental difficulty or imbalance. There is a responsibility on the part of the inspanidual to seek help where it can be found and to make use of proper medications when they can be helpful.
Although a mental condition may be a perturbing part of an inspanidual’s personality, there are often periods in that person’s life where a problem can be recognized and help can be sought. While we may not be responsible for a particular condition that may afflict us, if we have some awareness of it, we do have the obligation to address its consequences with the means available to us. Obviously, we are dealing with many varying degrees of this complex question.
Those who love and care for the mentally ill
I am particularly moved when I encounter those who love and care for those afflicted with some mental disturbance. This demands a particular and, at times, heroic form of love and concern. It is accompanied with many frustrations and many disappointments. These problems sometimes surface in later life, and so it seems that the parent, husband, wife, son, daughter or friend has become an entirely different person and it is easy to grow weary and angry.
In this context especially, but also in the entire issue of mental health that we have been addressing, we do not want to forget the consolation we are given by Jesus, often called the “spanine Physician.” In the Gospels, we read those beautiful words, which are most appropriate in this context: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
While acknowledging the difficult nature of mental illness, we do not want to ignore the means that God has given to us to help us in our difficulties: the human community, the natural bonds of the family and its natural support system, the life of the sacraments and communicating with God in prayer. All of these means are a great source of support for those afflicted with mental disturbances and those who love and care for them.
I would like to conclude with a beautiful prayer of St. John of the Cross, which can be a help and consolation to all of us:
“O blessed Jesus, grant me stillness of soul in you. Let your mighty kindness reign in me. Rule me, O King of gentleness, King of peace. Grant me control; great power of self-control, control over my thoughts, words and actions. From all irritability, want of meekness, O Lord deliver me. By your own deep patience, grant me patience, stillness of soul in you. Make me in this, and in all things, more and more like you. Amen.”
10 June 2010