A Catholic Approach to Supporting Persons with Mental Illness

Posted by Maggie Skoch Musso, MD on Oct 6, 2020 7:03:00 AM
Maggie Skoch Musso, MD

Skoch Mental Health title

“It is good that you exist.”

This beautiful phrase from Principles of Catholic Theology by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) succinctly captures the inherent truth underlying a Catholic understanding of supporting and loving those with a mental illness. Despite my instinct to argue that this is self-evident and simple, yet another pope reminds me that a Catholic understanding of mental illness requires important theological reflection and incorporation of the most updated neuropsychiatric knowledge in order to affirm this truth.

In 1996, the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers held a conference entitled, “In the Image and Likeness of God: Always? — Disturbances of the Human Mind.” In the opening address, Pope St. John Paul II sought to answer the question posed by the conference’s title. Because scholars have “identified in man’s mental faculties, that is, in his reason and in his will, a privileged sign of this affinity with God” (“The Mentally Ill Are Also Made in God’s Image,” §3), one might wonder if persons with mental illnesses fall outside the imago Dei. John Paul II provides a decisive and affirmative answer: “When God turns his gaze on man, the first thing he sees and loves in him is not the deeds he succeeds in doing, but his own image, an image that confers on man the ability to know and love his own Creator” (Ibid., §4). Neuropsychiatric illnesses, which can impair mood, thought process, perception, memory, and more, do not indicate that one is less-than-human. He adds that we ought to “feel the whole weight” of the provocative and disturbing question, noting that while “faith and reason converge in recognizing the full human dignity of the mentally ill,” persons with mental illness are often faced with “indifference and neglect, when not also exploited and abused” (Ibid., §6). Thus, it is critical to place at the foundation of any Catholic approach to supporting persons with mental illness the inherent dignity of each person, a dignity that compels us to say, no matter what, “It is good that you exist.”

What does this look like in practice? For a lay person, the call is to the vocation of accompaniment. When a loved one is experiencing a mental illness, first tell them that it is good that they exist, and that you are here with them. Ask them how you can best support them. Assist them in accessing psychiatric care, and following through with their provider’s recommendations. Mental illnesses often affect the very faculties needed to get help, including motivation, memory, and, as in serious illnesses like schizophrenia, the very insight necessary to understand that one is ill. Local parishes ought to anchor any discussion of mental illness in this simple truth.

In addition to supporting individuals, Catholics are also called to understand and support systemic changes needed to improve care for persons with mental illness, especially those with chronic and serious mental illnesses. Persons with serious mental illnesses are disproportionately impacted by homelessness, incarceration, victimization, and suicide, and, as such, demand particular attention by Catholics who are called to ‘go to the margins’—“serve those marginalized by society” (see Pope Francis, “Homily to New Cardinals,” February 14, 2015). The Treatment Advocacy Center is an excellent resource to begin learning about this important cause.

As a physician, when I see patients who present to the hospital with suicidal thoughts or following a suicide attempt, I tell them, “I am so glad you are here with us.” As a Catholic, I remember that I am called to love all those with a mental illness and to help them remember in turn that they are known and loved. All Catholics are called to this.

To the person with major depression struggling to get out of bed…

To the person with crippling anxiety…

To the person with schizophrenia struggling to identify what is real…

To the person with bipolar disorder who unwittingly damaged close relationships while experiencing an episode of mania…

To the person with obsessive-compulsive disorder experiencing inescapable intrusive thoughts…

To all those affected by any mental illness, be it mild or severe…

It is good that you exist.

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Featured image by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Topics: St. John Paul II, human dignity, mental health, Mental Illness Awareness Week, accompaniment

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The McGrath Institute Blog helps Catholics live and hand on their faith in Jesus Christ, especially in the family, home and parish, and cultivates and inspires everyday leaders to live out the fullness and richness of their faith in the simple, little ways that make up Church life.

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