Bishop Barron Discusses Impact of Social Media, Isolation and ‘Longing for God’ Amid Bishops’ Initiative to Address Mental-Health Crisis

Minnesota shepherd kicked off a heartfelt discussion at the bishops’ fall meeting about how the Church can minister to the growing number of the faithful suffering from mental-health concerns.

Bishop Robert Barron speaks during the USCCB Fall Meeting on November 15, 2023 in Baltimore, Md.
Bishop Robert Barron speaks during the USCCB Fall Meeting on November 15, 2023 in Baltimore, Md. (photo: Screenshot / USCCB )

BALTIMORE — For the Catholic struggling with anxiety, depression or even thoughts of suicide, it is often daunting to think of how to seek help, given the stigma that can be attached to mental illness and the challenge of understanding these difficulties in light of faith.

The U.S. bishops have seen and often very personally felt the need to improve their ministry to the growing number of the faithful facing these issues.

At the bishops’ fall meeting Nov. 13-16, Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, led a presentation and discussion on the bishops’ new mental-health campaign. Prior to his presentation, he told the Register about the campaign and the concerns that prompted it.

He said that he has followed the crisis surrounding mental health in the U.S. for years, and when he became chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, he thought it was time to address the issue, which is “really impinging upon families and young people.”

He pointed to the record-high number of Americans facing depression and high number of suicides. Young people are also increasingly facing feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness, according to Centers for Disease Control data showing that 44% of teens in the United States report experiencing these feelings, up from 37% in 2019. Bishop Barron brought his concerns to the committee, and they decided to develop a programmatic outreach.

The campaign began Oct. 10 with a novena for mental health. Bishop Barron said that they are now developing roundtables “for bishops to get together with mental-health professionals, with clinical people, with pastoral people, just to talk through the issues and to help us understand more clearly what’s at stake and how we can respond.”

He said that the bishops also want “to lobby our legislators to try to get more resources for mental health available to people because there’s a great complaint that there aren’t sufficient resources and that, often, the poor or more marginalized part of our population don’t have access to them.”

Dangers Facing Young People

Bishop Barron addressed the impact that frequent social-media use can have on the mental health of young people.

“I use social media,” he said. “I believe and I think it’s very important. It is a great thing to communicate the Gospel,” but “… it’s dangerous, and especially young people are very adversely affected.”

“There I might say young women might get more affected because they’re on the social-media space where they’re always comparing themselves to others, and what they look like, and these feelings of inferiority,” he added.

He also had concerns about “the disassociation between people and their families and friends and real life because the world is mediated now through screens,” pointing to “a strict correlation between screen time and depression” found in many studies. “I think social media is a major contributing factor to this,” he said.

Bishop Barron also emphasized the isolation people face, saying that community is key to mental health because “we, as a species, just require companionship. We require friendship and relationship. If we lose that, we suffer, and the screen is a very poor substitute.” He said the screen is “a first step or as a preliminary move” to finding community, but added that “if we rely almost exclusively on our mediated relationships through a screen, we’re missing something that matters enormously for our psychological health. So reconnecting young people to their friends and family and to real people, that’s a huge thing.”

Mental Health and Spiritual Desolation

Bishop Barron told the Register he believes that mental-health issues and spiritual-health issues are “related to each other,” agreeing with 20th-century analytical psychologist Carl Jung that, “at bottom, every psychological problem is a spiritual problem.” He added that “there’s a distinction to be drawn, to be sure, but yet they’re related to each other; and I think there is a lot of spiritual desolation among young people. There is a spiritual alienation which has led to a lot of sadness.”

He said he does not believe the growing mental-health crisis is unconnected to the large number of young people leaving religion.

“I think people leave the Church — in great numbers, they abandon God; they abandon the liturgy; they abandon prayer,” he said. “And then they wonder, ‘Now, why am I so sad? Why am I so lonely? Why am I so isolated?’ So, there’s a link there, between spiritual health and mental health.”

“If people are disaffiliating from church — we’re in a post-Christian environment; people have lost the sense of the transcendent — that’s going to affect you supernaturally,” he said. “But, also naturally, the natural longing for God is going to be suppressed, and that’s going to lead to psychological danger.”

Bishop Barron also highlighted the great need for mental-health professionals grounded in the Catholic faith.

“I think that’s a very healthy instinct to say, ‘I’ve got a psychotherapist or psychiatrist who understands the spiritual life, understands it’s dimensions, understands how, finally, we’re hungry for God,’” he said. “That is super important; if we can train people in that tradition, all the better.”

When asked about saints that people struggling with mental illness could keep in mind, Bishop Barron brought up St. Dymphna, the patron saint of those suffering from mental illness. She was killed by her father at the age of 15 after fleeing from him when he tried to marry her after the loss of her mother. In his eight years as bishop, he said he has seen and been impressed by the significant number of young girls taking her name for their confirmation saint.

Bishops Discuss Crisis and Response

Bishop Barron made many of these points to the body of bishops when he made his presentation on the new campaign. Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, addressed the bishops alongside Bishop Barron regarding the campaign. He said the country is in a “dire mental-health crisis,” citing the statistic that more than 1 in 5 adults live with mental illness and that these conditions retain a “pernicious stigma” that remains a barrier.

To those struggling with mental health, Archbishop Gudziak said, “You are the treasure of the Church.”

Following the presentation, the longest public discussion of the fall meeting broke out, as many bishops voiced their suggestions and thoughts on the mental-health crisis.

Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee noted during the discussion following the presentation that, given that there’s not enough mental-health professionals to respond to the need, “the pressure’s going to be put on priests in parishes”; in light of this, he suggested, “Don’t forget the seminaries,” highlighting the training there to help facilitate proper responses to those experiencing these challenges.

USCCB president Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services noted that when it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), “We’ve also encouraged priests to use the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, as well, not just for physical illness, but also for mental illness.”

Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix recounted how this issue is personal for him, as he has lost a brother, two sisters and a brother-in-law to suicide. He told the bishops that his sister died Oct. 10 a year ago, so the fact “that you opened up the novena on that date was particularly personally moving to me.”

He said that simply having a conversation with people about the tragedies of suicide in his own family “opened up doors for people. For the first time, they’re able to share the strife that they have endured due to loved ones who have died by suicide, and they’re coming out and saying that this stigma needs to be erased and that they need to have this conversation.”

In addition to the conversations around breaking through stigma, the discussion also included some words of caution about the need to train mental-health professionals who are grounded in the faith. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, said he thought there should be work to “raise up a lot of Catholic professionals because, sadly, the wrong therapist can create problems.” He added that he believed one of the causes for the mental-health crisis is “the breakdown of family, and that’s where a lot of healing can naturally happen, so I hope we’re looking proactively on ‘How can you strengthen family life?’ because I think that can be a preventative.”

A Loving, Interdisciplinary Approach

Two bishops also spoke with the Register about the mental-health campaign outside of the formal discussion, noting concerns they have in their dioceses and why this issue is important to them.

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, told the Register that he didn’t believe there’s a family that is not affected “one way or another, either in their immediate families or distant families, where someone is really struggling with mental-health issues.” He said there aren’t enough counselors in schools, and “our young people are really asking for help, for support, and dealing with anxiety and depression and isolation and despair.”

Bishop Burbidge said that “certainly in living our faith and growing close to Christ, we do find our peace in the midst of anxiety,” but “God also gives us his instruments, and these are experts in the mental-health field. These are psychologists and psychiatrists and counselors. These are instruments of God through which he will heal people.”

He praised the work of Divine Mercy University, which trains Catholic mental-health experts. “What is most effective is when the counseling, the guidance that is given, is also rooted with a faith perspective,” he said, “with virtue and with the sanctity of life and the respect and dignity that belongs to every person as a child of God.”

Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus, Ohio, told the Register that “a more cohesive and broader approach is clearly necessary in society, with all the challenges our young people, as well as families, are facing.” He said the bishops’ efforts will be “an interdisciplinary approach, relying on the mental-health professionals: doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists.”

Bishop Fernandes said that if you look at “how seriously we took the pandemic, what about this? Because we’re reaching pandemic levels of mental illness.” While priests and bishops are not mental-health experts, he said that “we can be ministers, and we can refer people to the people who are experts, and we can accompany the families in other ways.”

That’s because “Christ is the Divine Physician,” he said. “He is the healer.”

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