The Catholic View of Mental Illness

Cameron Bellm Blog, Catholic, Church

Five years ago, I attended mass in a city I was visiting. One of the readings included this beautiful line from Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer” (NABRE). But all the blood drained from my face during the homily when the priest said, “Of course, we don’t persevere anymore—we have therapy and medication now instead.” He intended it as a joke, and there was a light chuckle from the pews, but I was stunned and crushed by his words. To treat mental health care as diametrically opposed to prayer, as a failure to persevere—what a terribly shaming and incredibly dangerous thing to say.

I could not stop thinking about it, so I looked up the priest. I sent him an email. Very kindly and charitably, I explained my concerns. I told him my story. I told him about the years I had suffered without seeking treatment. I told him about how, out of fear and shame, I had resisted it. And I told him about how having the faith and courage to reach out for therapy and medication was my moment of reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe. I told him about how Jesus met me there, and how it was the great miracle of my life. I told him about the freedom and health that allowed me to fully pursue my sacred vocations. He never wrote back. But I hope that he heard me. And I hope that he never made that joke again.

Experiences like mine may be far too common in the Catholic Church, but they in no way reflect the Church’s actual views on mental illness and mental health care. Far from shaming or denigrating those who struggle with their mental health, the Church’s actual position on this issue is one of tender mercy and compassion.

It begins with the Church’s insistence on recognizing the dignity of a person who lives with mental illness. As Pope St. John Paul II so beautifully said,

“Christ took all suffering on himself, even mental illness. […] whoever suffers from mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being. In addition, he always has the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also to be treated as such.” [1]

Christ on the cross

Although a powerful stigma still persists around mental health care, with some people even believing it is incompatible with a life of faith or Church teaching, nothing could be further from the truth. Our last three popes have spoken openly and frequently about the good gift of mental health care for mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and substance use disorder.

In their recent pastoral letter “Hope and Healing,” the bishops of California address this particular barrier that people of faith sometimes encounter when considering and/or seeking mental health care:

“Some Christians harbor suspicions about psychiatry or clinical psychology and question their compatibility with the Catholic faith. […] However, good science that recognizes the life and dignity of people and the Catholic faith are never at odds. Medical science has discovered many useful treatments to help those with mental illness, and Catholics should welcome and make use of these—including medications, psychotherapy and other medical interventions.”  [2]

We are called, as Pope Francis frequently reminds us, to be a Church of accompaniment, walking alongside and engaging whole-heartedly with all who suffer, including those who live with mental health challenges. Speaking here about depression, Pope St. John Paul II calls us to be part of the compassionate care that is extended to our sisters and brothers:

“The role of those who care for depressed persons and who do not have a specifically therapeutic task consists above all in helping them to rediscover their self-esteem, confidence in their own abilities, interest in the future, the desire to live. It is therefore important to stretch out a hand to the sick, to make them perceive the tenderness of God, to integrate them into a community of faith and life in which they can feel accepted, understood, supported, respected; in a word, in which they can love and be loved.” [3]

The California bishops affirm this call to love and to break down the stigma surrounding mental health care in the Church:

“We clearly proclaim that there is no shame in receiving a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder, and we affirm the need for education in our communities to remove the unjust prejudice and stigma often associated with mental illness. Catholics should be the first among all to witness to the truth of the dignity of every human person, so as to live in love and solidarity with our neighbor.” [4]

How can we, as a Church and as individuals, do this on a practical level? The Sanctuary Course for Catholics, available in both English and Spanish, is a wonderful place to start. Both film- and discussion-based, the course brings together the insights of archbishops, theologians, mental health professionals, and people who live with mental health challenges. The course fosters a spirit of respect and confidentiality in which people can feel both fully heard and fully safe.

We can also look to the communion of saints to guide us. So many holy women and men have walked the road of mental health challenges before us. St. Benedict Labre struggled with scrupulosity (a religious form of OCD), St. Jane Frances de Chantal with depression, St. Mark Ji Tianxiang with addiction, and there are so many more intercessors who can shine a light for us. My devotional, No Unlikely Saints: A Mental Health Pilgrimage with Sacred Company  explores the lives and writings of six of these saints within the context of both Scripture and Catholic theology. The devotional can be done individually or with a group.

Together, we can dive deeply into the riches of the Church’s compassionate teaching on mental health. Together, we can end the stigma around mental illness that isolates and shames. Together, we can build the Church we are longing for. Come, let us join hearts and hands and begin.

[1] Pope St. John Paul II, “Address to Participants in the International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Healthcare Workers, On Illnesses of the Human Mind,” (Rome, November 30, 1996).

[2] California Catholic Conference (Bishops of California), “Hope and Healing: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of California on Caring for Those Who Suffer from Mental Illness Addressed to All Catholics and People of Goodwill,” May 2018, cacatholic.org.

[3] Pope St. John Paul II, “Address to the Participants in the 18th International Conference Promoted by the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care on the Theme of Depression” (Rome, November 14, 2003).

[4] California Catholic Conference (Bishops of California), “Hope and Healing: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of California on Caring for Those Who Suffer from Mental Illness Addressed to All Catholics and People of Goodwill,” May 2018, cacatholic.org.

Cover Photo by Thomas Vitali on Unsplash

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Book cover photo from Brick House in the City

Cameron Bellm

Cameron Bellm is a Seattle-based writer of poems, prayers, and devotionals. After completing her Ph.D. in Russian literature at the University of California, Berkeley, she traded the academic life for the contemplative life, informed by Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching. She is the author of A Consoling Embrace: Prayers for a Time of Pandemic (2020) and No Unlikely Saints: A Mental Health Pilgrimage with Sacred Company (2021). She and her husband have two young sons who remind them to seek the sacred in the everyday. You can find her at cameronbellm.com and on Instagram @cameronbellm.