Mental Health and Spiritual Health Are Not at Odds

Along with reception of the sacraments and nourishment of the soul, mental health resources that strengthen emotional, psychological and social supports can truly benefit Catholics who are suffering.

St. Dymphna is the patron saint of people suffering from mental illness.
St. Dymphna is the patron saint of people suffering from mental illness. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC0)

One in five individuals in the United States is living with a form of mental illness. Roughly the same percentage of the population, 20%, identify as Catholic. Despite the prevalence of mental illness in our nation, and undoubtedly among Catholics, there seems to be great confusion or a lack of recognition as to how mental health interplays with one’s spiritual health. Struggling with mental illness cannot be generalized as a mark of sin or a punishment from God. However, mental illness can deeply affect our ability to nurture our spiritual health. 

To understand how our mental health affects our spiritual health, we must understand what “mental health” is. Thankfully, in her 2000 years of discernment, Mother Church has provided guidance on how to come to the answers we are seeking.

Who Are We And What Is Mental Health?

Human persons are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), continually invited to respond to a relationship with God. We are whole, integrated beings composed of a body-soul unity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 364). Because of this, the health of our soul and the health of our mind are deeply intertwined and, along with the whole of the physical body, compose the health of the entire human person. From the perspective of our faith, we know that the truest and most important measure of health is the ability of the human person to respond to a relationship with God. After all, this is what gets us to Heaven. But to respond freely, we need the health of our minds, the place where we rationalize and choose how to respond to God’s call. How exactly can mental health services be used to free our minds to make this choice?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” When we look back at the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find a compatibility among the inclusion of all three of these elements as the Catechism recognizes the presence of emotions or passions (CCC, 1763), the ability for man to reason and make choices (CCC, 1796), and the reality that we are relational beings who need communion with others or social supports to flourish. From the perspective of our faith, mental health is truly attained when ethical and morally sound interventions are used to free the human person’s mind from that which keeps him or her from pursuing relationship with God, whether the obstacle lies in one’s emotions, psyche or social environment.

Mental health professionals, such as counselors, are often trained to assess the emotional, psychological, rational and social dimensions of the human person. Interventions from these professionals involve helping the client overcome obstacles that prevent the client from pursuing or completing the client’s unique goals.

Furthermore, counselors, therapists, and other helping professionals are often obligated by their professions’ ethical guidelines to constantly be mindful of a client’s spiritual beliefs, displaying multicultural competence. For example, one of the core principles stated in the American Counseling Association’s 2014 Code of Ethics states that professional counselors value “honoring diversity and embracing a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts.” In other words, counselors are obligated to not only respect but to place value on the cultural convictions, inclusive of religious beliefs, of their clients. This multicultural competence should naturally extend to clients who are Catholic.

Mental Health and the Catholic Response

When sought in conjunction with regular reception of the sacraments and nourishment of the soul, mental health resources that strengthen emotional, psychological and social supports can truly benefit Catholics who are suffering. Cultivating a culture of greater awareness and compassion for those struggling with mental and emotional affliction is truly a Catholic response. Likewise, prudently sharing your struggles, especially when they become overwhelming, with trusted friends and seeking professional help, is the courageous and necessary response when you are struggling. Numerous studies have shown that loneliness and isolation have detrimental effects on our mental and physical health. As Catholics, the whole of our sacramental life is inherently relational, as all seven sacraments are ordered toward relationship with the Eucharist (CCC, 1211). Caring for our spiritual health will naturally help us foster our sense of community and belonging because of this. Mental health treatment does not replace our sources of spiritual nourishment but works in conjunction with it for our whole health.

Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, who recently joined the Christ Medicus Foundation Board of Directors, has been outspoken about his own experience with mental health issues and the need to reach out to others for support. In 2019 Bishop Conley courageously took a medical leave of absence after encouragement from brother priests and bishops that ultimately allowed him to navigate depression and anxiety and thus be a better shepherd for the Church. Bishop Conley’s story is a fatherly witness and model for Catholics in need of mental health resources and for Catholics seeking ways to help a friend or loved one. 

In his newly released pastoral letter “A Future with Hope” Bishop Conley writes, “We are communal creatures and, since many wounds are relational, much healing can be found through safe and loving relationships. Trust them and let them help.” His words emphasize the importance of living in loving community to truly find healing. His story of finding healing, which is outlined in the letter, shows us how seeking treatment from spiritual, mental and physical care providers, along with loving relationships with family and friends, can truly create an environment that welcomes the healing love of Christ into one’s spirit, mind and body. 

In addition to spiritual direction, Bishop Conley chose to seek medical and psychological support from professionals who also are practicing Catholics. He also recognized the need for exercise, more sleep and constraints to the demands of non-stop work. In short, balance is required to heal and remain healed. When our spiritual, physical and mental natures are functioning well, it is much easier to navigate our hectic worlds and to be able to offer our true selves to those around us and to our Lord and Savior. Many mental health counselors and therapists are trained to offer clients support in how to achieve this balance by examining the emotional, psychological and environmental obstacles that keep individuals from attaining it. Finding a Catholic counselor or speaking to your counselor about how important your faith is to you can be a powerful way to integrate your spiritual and mental health. 

Our mental health is a key component of who we are and how we share our gifts. For some, mental health is an ongoing struggle. For others, like a broken leg, our mental health could seem to change in an instant. But always, our Lord is with us. He wants to heal us in his time. 

If you are struggling with mental health issues, reach out to your doctor and priest for guidance. There are many Catholic psychological services available. Check with your diocese or Catholic Charities. And talk with a friend. Allow these professionals and loved ones to be a part of a loving community that Christ can use to bring you his healing.

If you see a friend or loved one struggling, reach out with prayer and charity. Human persons are whole integrated beings composed of spirit, mind, and body. The health of our souls and the health of our minds are deeply intertwined. We should not keep these two important domains of wellness separated. As a Church, we cannot ignore the millions in our nation who are suffering from afflictions of the mind. We must be invested in approaching the needs of the whole person with charity guided by truth.

Mariah Buzza is the Assistant Director of Health Policy and Member Community for CMF CURO. Disclaimer: This article was written for the purpose of displaying how the cultivation of spiritual health is not at odds with seeking mental health treatment. It is not meant to be taken as professional or clinical advice.