How Catholicism Heals Mental Illness

With another tragic school shooting, people are beginning to see the connection to a swelling mental health problem in our world. Given that half of the entire human experience is built around a mental framework, this topic remains incredibly urgent. The field of psychology is the primary avenue mental health is viewed. Interestingly, the word “psych” in Greek means “soul.” And since Catholic theology teaches that human beings are a body and soul component, under the mental lens is where we can delve into a closer look at the human soul. 

According to the CDC, mental health is defined as our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects most facets of human life – how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices in our fast-paced world. Given the importance of mental well-being within our human endeavor, we must now ask the pressing question – what is the state of our mental health? 

Those who are immersed in the mental health world are sounding the alarm that mental illness has been steadily on the rise. The main mental health category that has seen a vast uptick the last 10 years is depression.

An article by Psychology Today reveals  that “anxiety and depression are markedly higher than they were in earlier eras.”  One such report indicated that “across four surveys, Americans reported substantially higher levels of depressive symptoms, particularly somatic symptoms, in the 2000s–2010s compared to the 1980s–1990s.” According to a new study, published by the American Psychological Association, rates of mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes have increased significantly over the last decade. Notably, rates of serious psychological distress increased by 78% among young adults and teens in the last decade. This trend is so much the case that the APA is reporting a vast uptick in the demand for mental health experts given our mental health crisis today. Numerous causes abound for why we are experiencing a mental health catastrophe. Some suggest it’s the combination of social media, with the de-humanization of technology coupled with the covid lockdown. While all these things play a part in it, ultimately, this mental health crisis is really a cry for God.

Here we stand in a muck of rising mental emergency encircling our society. Yet, instead of seeking God, we’ve been trained to pivot to secular psychologists, sociologists, and psychiatrists to find a solution to our emotional dilemmas. With this turn, one inevitably will hit a roadblock because the secular sciences remove the concept of the divine. As Father Mitch Pacwa puts it, “The soft sciences such as sociology, psychology, psychiatry, were born as a result of the French Revolution which promoted an anti-supernatural bias which says that everything now has a natural solution and a rational answer to it.” Therefore, under the secular lens, a person’s mental predicament is “fixed” by material solutions – pills and humanistic therapy. But, as we’ll see, these proposed answers end up intensifying the mental illness as they are void of any divine landmark.

The crux of the matter is that Catholic ethos and secular psychology hold competing views on the starting point of the human person.

Catholic theology sees a person in “the image of God” with a body and soul composite. Within this body-soul framework, a person’s mission is to know the good using his reason and to freely choose to do the good through an act of the will. St. Thomas Aquinas articulated that the three layers of the human soul are the intellect, the will, and the passions. Aquinas goes on to teach that your intellect gives you knowledge of the outside world while your will interacts with this world by putting the decisions of your intellect into action. Then, you have a passion for what drives you to want to do certain things. In Catholic theology, these three-pronged elements act like three hinges that work together in a uniformed machine. Intellect needs to be in control while the will and passions take instruction from the intellect in the human climb to virtue.

It is crucial to understand that the passions tell the person what they want, while the intellect instructs the person on what they need. For example, the passions will communicate “I’m hungry” to the person. The intellect agrees and moves the will of the person to eat. But, the intellect has to rightly order the person’s will to not go overboard on food as the passions will demand the person eat too much or the wrong type of food. Because of our fallen nature, our passions tend to be unreliable in leading us to fulfillment. At times, the intellect agrees with the passions, and at times it restricts the passions.

As Aquinas writes, there can be no human flourishing without the reordering of the passions through the intellect. When this has been accomplished, man will be closer to “the image of God” as we’ll have a similar functionality with God’s rationality (i.e., intellect) and volition (i.e., choosing the good). Therefore, for humans to mature in the image of God we need sound reason and choice – and not be under the total influence of the wants and wishes of the passions.

If we end up taking Aquinas’s theory to its conclusion we see that any mental illness is really a sickness of the soul in which the frenzied passions have taken over while the intellect has been silenced. In this setting, the passions incite adults and teens alike to go to the “toys” of the culture for happiness – whether it be social media, TV shows, drugs, promiscuity, alcohol, food, you name it. However, the solutions of the culture doesn’t produce fulfillment for people. Rather, they only offer a cheap “happiness high” that ends up exacerbating the problem by acting as an conveyer belt to our mental health dilemma. Isn’t it curious that those countries that suffer the most from depression are the most technologically advanced. 

The question remains how does modern psychology treat the human predicament of being controlled by the passions?

In his book Introduction to the Science of Mental Health, Fr. Chad Ripperger states that “modern psychology views man as nothing more than a physical or material thing.” Therefore, opposite from the catholic lens, secular psychology views the person as a material body that seeks to ultimately quench his bodily (i.e. fleshly) passions. Here, the psychologist becomes awkwardly silent on the God-breathed soul of a person. Taking God out of the equation has caused psychologists to have a distorted anthropology of the human person. Mental health professionals regard the human person as a collection of chemicals, synapses, and neurotransmitters interacting with each other. Their ultimate goal is to calm one’s anxiety by deeming it a “chemical imbalance” that needs to be treated with medication and therapy discussions about past traumas. However, this approach serves as a rickety lifeboat as meds and therapy conversations lack the precision that prayer and the Sacrament of Confession provide in healing one’s inner thoughts. As famous psychologist, Carl Jung candidly admitted, “If my patients went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I’d lose 99% of them.”   

To be skewed on the starting point in addressing the human quandary is to send the person down a grisly path. It is no wonder today as we see psychologists now affirming child-murder and genital mutilation as morally upright.

Things started to go awry in psychology with the advent of Sigmund Freud‘s theories. Freud believed human beings are driven solely by animal instinct – specifically sexual urges. Freud saw that indulging in these cravings would allow man to become in-tune with his contentment. But, by doing this, Freud reduced man to a beast. Here, man merely does whatever his passions crave all the while muting his ability to reason what he should do according to his teleological end. From this, Freud allowed future psychologists to normalize the warped nature of man all the while rupturing Catholic morality. 

Father John Hardon spent much of his energy critiquing the mental health system for its assaults on morality. He wrote:

“Many modern psychologists and psychiatrists tell their clients . . . . Don’t be a slave of your conscience. Satisfy your desires. You are in charge of your own life. You determine what is good, and you choose what you want. … In all these cases, the demonic strategy is clear. Keep sinners in their sinful state of mind, and keep them from ever repenting of their sinful state of soul.”

In this setting, psychologists rather sadly lead their patients toward the intoxicating grip of pride and lust, which, in turn, leads to the patient’s descent into greater mental anguish.

For example, swaths of medical experts suggest that one’s emotional problems can be solved by the “self-soothing” effects of masturbation. Here, a doctor views that stimulating your senses by making you feel good acts as a healthy way to numb your problems. But, in the long run, masturbation just makes the problem worse as it forces people to be governed by their self-centered desires making them an addict to lust (see CCC 2352). In this sad state, man has tarnished his dignity of being in the image of God. Instead of rationally knowing the good and choosing to do the good, he now merely grasps for whatever his passions have a hanker for.

Given Freud’s theories, if there is one thing that psychologist’s mind orbits around, it is to plunge into your sexual desires. But, scientific studies show that going all-in to one’s sexual passions has lead to the tsunami of mental health issues we see ourselves in today – not to mention has greatly contributed to America’s flagrant sexual debauchery.

Rather than merely view a person as a physical being that needs to experience self-stimulation of the desires, Catholicism rightly orders human passions to be governed by the well-formed reason through study, prayer, penance, and the sacraments. Yet, when psychologists are presented with the Catholic solution of controlling the passions through these tactics, they balk and deem this model as suppressive.

Fr. John Hardon goes on to note, “modern psychologists consider any effort to control the sex impulses as repressive.” In short, what psychologists attempt to do is cleverly label any effort to guide the passions through reason as “restrictive,” “cruel,” or “authoritarian.”

Father Hardon comments, “The reason the mental health system affirms these acts is that it rejects the ability of man to freely choose the good against his fallen nature and inclinations.” In essence, the mental health system either thinks man is not wounded by his desires or they think man is too feeble to make sound choices to be elevated out of his warped state. Either case, this shows our society’s approach to solving mental illness is out of whack.  

Another red flag is that psychologists tend to deny objective truth. Wilhelm Wundt, one of the fathers of modern psychology embraced the notion that the truth is relative to the individual. He wrote in 1912, “There exist only changing and transient ideational processes.” This statement gives credence to what is promoted in psychology today – there is no actual truth. Truth becomes relative to the whims of the individual or the popular ideas of our times. Here, one goes on a whirlwind of strange ideas by fixating on the phrase “my truth” and “your truth” but completely missing “the truth.” Today, humanistic psychology teaches that we all create our own truth, indeed our own reality. This goes far beyond saying people’s interpretations and opinions differ and that some are correct and others mistaken. Instead, it claims that no one is ever mistaken.  

In this state of moral relativism, modern psychology creates a kerfuffle of confusion. Take for example the following statement from a licensed psychologist, “Giving yourself time to become more aware of yourself and your internal experience will allow you to manifest into action what you truly want. Experiencing your true self will help keep you feeling real, healthy, and truly satisfied, giving you the push you need to continue down that path.” This standard psychological speech in essence displays the catchy yet perplexing slogan, “You be you by letting you decide.” What does this even mean? Whereas Catholicism gives a person a concise moral framework to live by, modern psychology conveys a complicated analysis of morality through individualistic expressiveness – causing the patient to go through a series of mental acrobatics completely removed from God as the starting point. 

With this “you be you” approach, truth is subjectively determined by the creature over the Creator’s objective order and design. This subtle tweak in removing the Biblical notion of the church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), to now the imperfect individual as the avenue of truth reeks of a demonic influence. In this all-too-common case, a person rejects the foundation of reality at the expense of their perceived short-term happiness.

With morality jettisoned therapy sessions often steer into justifying the patient’s flawed actions because of their past trauma. When psychologists label a degenerate act that somebody chooses to do as a “mental illness” it insinuates that there is no moral responsibility. Rather, one’s mental circumstances from his troubled past gives him a pass to do whatever his urges drive him to do. While past traumas are tragic, they still need to be examined and resolved, not treated as an excuse to allow the person to do whatever his passions crave.

Rather than using past traumas as an excuse to not alter one’s behavior philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “Guilt and shame are often justified. And what they demand of us isn’t therapy in order to remove them, but right conduct so that they have no need to occur.”

In fact, much of the grueling work in therapy sessions can be done in the Sacrament of Confession. Even Carl Jung saw the immense benefit of the concept of forgiveness in confession. A person can exhaust hefty mental fatigue in therapy about the effects of being bullied, but in the confessional when one sincerely forgives the person who persecuted him, all the built-up animosity and remorse simmers away and healing begins. Recall that St. Paul warns us that failure to forgive leads to a bitterness that ultimately wrecks lives (see Eph. 4:31, Heb. 12:15). And on top of that, in the confessional, the priest’s counsel challenges the person to do small virtuous acts to combat their negative behavior. Thus, leading the person to a healthy dose of self-control that gradually allows them to increase in reason and combat negative passions.

More solutions abound in the Christian faith. Instead of being heavily sedated on pills for decades, prayer can offer mental health patients the restoration they need. Prayer has been shown to significantly reduce stress and depression. In a study that examined the effects of prayer on depression, the researchers stated, “We conclude that increased activity in the prefrontal cortex after healing prayer may be associated with increased cognitive control over emotions.” The answers that the faith presents are so much so that a branch of mental health teaching in Catholicism has developed into what is known as psychomoralitcs. The testimony from those who suffer from mental health is clear – the Catholic method works. 

Two more glaring concern rises in the mental health field. One is to diagnose a disorder, like depression, as a result of a “chemical imbalance.” A recent study blows this theory out the window by accurately showing that depression is not caused by a mere chemical imbalance. The second problem the mental health field poses is the insistent use of prescription drugs as an attempt to feel better. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2015, “an estimated 119 million Americans aged 12 or older used prescription psychotherapeutic drugs in the past year, representing 44.5% of the population.” The type of medication in the mental health field is called psychotropics.  Psychotropics work by balancing serotonin levels that affect mood and emotion levels, which, in turn, affect behavior. While at times, medicine can help, the major concern is the long-term effects of altering one’s nervous system in which psychotropics turns into a guessing game in modifying a person’s image of God foundation. As journalist Paul Brock comments, “Psychotropics blunt reality, alter perception, and numb the emotions.” Psychotropics also end up treating people like a by-product of cells and chemicals all the while skipping over the core concept in Catholicism that the culprit of this brokenness is sin

More conflicting distinctions surface in comparing psychology with the faith. Whereas in the secular world, a person goes to great lengths to avoid the feeling of being ruined, in Catholicism experiencing brokenness is a major part of healing. Humility is the foundation in Catholicism (cf Luke 14:11, 1 Peter 5:6-7, Eph. 4:2, James 4:6, 10, Proverbs 3:34, 11:2). To get to the stage of humility one needs to go through a humble experience. Keep in mind we get the word “humiliation” from “humble.” In modern psychology the opposite is true – do everything to not undergo a negative encounter that disrupts your feelings. 

Since psychology slowly makes one tone-deaf to the sensitivity of sin, its very structure can induce sin. Former NBA player Royce White experienced anxiety and depression but witnessed how the NBA, and the mental health system in general, did not treat his illness but rather exacerbated his problem. White’s story reveals a dark setting in which the corporate monarchs in the mental health industry had coordinated plans to take advantage of the failed human psychological condition in order to cash in. 

Journalist Paul Brock goes on to highlight this bleak reality by writing, “The mental health system, being controlled by the state along with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, aims at keeping man in his fallen state.” In short, given the mental health system is financially dependent upon its wounded patients, there is a lack of urgency in freeing its patients from their bleak state. If this is the case, the medical establishment sadly mirrors St. Peter’s warning, “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption” (2 Peter 2:19).

Unlike modern psychology Christ’s healing does not consist in mind-numbing medication or feel-good talk therapy (nor does His healing fill the pockets of Big Pharma).

In Catholicism, the soul is the form of the body – that which animates the body whereas in psychology the soul is dubbed as a figure of one’s imagination. Yet, because there is no recognition of the soul with the mental health system, getting rid of stress always consists of a worldly “fix.” No longer is man made in the image and likeness of God with the sole purpose of glorifying Him, but human fulfillment for the mental health system is determined by whatever one wants it to be. Because the mental health system doesn’t even acknowledge the true nature of man, it renders itself incapable of providing the very thing it claims to offer; human well-being.

Catholic teaching exists because the mental health system, focused only on the material, has utterly failed to study and treat the soul because it does not acknowledge its existence. In the end, the only real cure for a soul afflicted with mental anguish is God. Let us bring these patients true healing by encouraging them to seek God as their ultimate remedy.

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