Sister Kathryn Hermes, a Daughter of St. Paul, is a voice crying in the wilderness on the issue of clinical depression. She has suffered for years from the illness and written books on the topic that are unique for combining personal insights, facts from modern psychology and psychiatry — including the appropriate use of medications — and the vital role for traditional Catholic practice and devotion.
“Depression is just an expression of our fragile human vulnerability,” she writes in her 2003 book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach. “Ironically, this empty darkness is often the source of immense creativity, the black night that often announces the advent of the divine.”
Yet people cannot simply “pray themselves” out of depression, without a balanced program of therapy, diet and exercise, along with a group of understanding friends who will share a depressed person’s often difficult presence and stories.
So says Sister Kathryn, who directs the electronic publishing department at Pauline Books & Media in Boston. “Depression is a medical condition that can be accompanied by panic attacks, anxiety, sadness, suicidal thoughts, feelings of despair and helplessness, and a sense of being overwhelmed,” she states in her book.
Depressed persons may have frightening thoughts and debilitating fatigue, and can feel as though God has abandoned them in the time of their greatest need, she told the Register. Being a faithful Catholic provides no protection from the illness and, in some cases, may make depression harder to recognize and treat.
“Because of our high ideals, Christians are sometimes prime targets for depression,” she writes. “High expectations about how to live reinforce ideals that can be unrealistic. We imagine what the ideal Christian should be and realize that we’re not it.”
All of the experts consulted for this article agree that Catholics face special issues and often greater obstacles in dealing successfully with depression. While a person suffering from clinical depression may not seek help because of the enduring stigma surrounding mental illness, a Catholic may also hold the widespread belief that a person who truly believes and trusts in God, and frequents the sacraments, should not become depressed.
After all, the word psychology comes from the Greek meaning “study of the soul,” and who has studied the soul more than the Church? In addition, we ask in the Our Father to be delivered from “all evil,” and at Mass we ask God to “protect us from all anxiety.”
Yet those Catholics who do seek professional help face the additional, daunting task of finding a therapist who shares their commitment to the faith — or at least sees their religious devotion as a positive factor in plotting a path to recovery.
“There are not a lot of Catholic therapists out there who are willing to engage a Catholic patient on the terms of faith,” says Dr. Paul Vitz, a Catholic psychologist who has written a number of books on the use and misuse of psychology in modern society. “Online, there is a Catholic therapists’ site (catholictherapists.com), but it can be hit and miss as far as finding someone in your area.”
For instance, in the whole state of California, only eight therapists are listed on the website.
Vitz, who taught for more than 30 years at New York University, is helping to remedy the shortage as a professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPI) in Virginia, which was founded in 1999 by the Legionaries of Christ. The institute forms psychology students in the best of modern medicine and science, and incorporates the rich Catholic teachings of the dignity and destiny of the human person and insights into the mind and soul. IPI just gained full accreditation for its master’s and doctoral programs in clinical psychology, and graduated it first doctoral student in December.
Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the World Day of the Sick, to be observed Feb. 11, is dedicated to the issue of mental illness. Stating that one-fifth of the world’s population suffers from some form of “mental disturbance,” the Pope writes that he perceives “the need to integrate in a better way the tandem appropriate therapy and a new sensitivity toward disturbance so as to enable workers in this sector, in a more effective way, to help these sick people and their families.” He invites mentally ill persons “to offer your condition of suffering, together to Christ, to the Father, certain that every ordeal received with resignation is meritorious and draws the benevolence of God upon the whole of mankind.”
Depression is a form of emotional or psychological disturbance that can disrupt a person’s free will and ability to make moral or rational choices, notes Dr. Gladys Sweeney, IPI director. “The goal of good psychology is to free the person of the disturbance so he or she can think and act rationally. Many times this involves learning how to put the emotions under the control of reason.
“There is no substitute for the grace of God,” she adds, “but since grace builds on nature, you need to remove the obstacles to receiving the fullness of grace.”
Vitz says one of the best ways out of depression is to do good for others.
“This is what our faith teaches,” he points out. “The best thing we can do for ourselves psychologically is to be good to others in a selfless way. Faithful prayer can serve as an antidepressant.”
Regarding antidepressant medication, the Catholic experts say that they are useful in treating depression — as long as they’re not overused.
“Medication is useful in severe clinical depression and in cases of bipolar disorder,” Vitz says. “The danger is over-prescribing, and seeing medication as a magic bullet.”
Sister Kathryn says: “Medication is necessary for some, helpful for some, and can be used by some to take care of problems that they are not ready or capable of facing. It can also be used as an escape. Along with medication and/or therapy, spiritual direction is a big part of surviving depression.”
The sacraments are also key, says Vitz. In what he calls a “therapeutic society” that tends to explain sin and guilt in non-judgmental psychological terms, the Church needs to reassert the importance of sacramental confession.
In her book, Sister Kathryn recommends returning to the same, trusted priest for confession over a period of time, so he will become familiar with your particular problems. Confession offers what a feel-good therapy session cannot, she adds.
“Depression can distort our vision of ourselves,” she says. “In the sacrament of reconciliation, you can get God’s perspective on your life.”
Maria Caulfield writes from