Are Depression, Anxiety, and other Mental Illnesses forms of Spiritual problems?

April 11, 2018

We speak of depression, anxiety, and all other mental health issues, and we ask the question, are they only spiritual problems? Some people would suggest that mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and many others like these can all be cured by simply adopting a more rigorous spiritual canon where a person prays and fasts more, reads the bible more often and goes to church more frequently. Well, those who would make such claims are in fact very mistaken! Such claims demonstrate that within our communities, our homes, and sadly our churches, there are still negative perceptions and stigmas surrounding the subject of mental illness that requires our immediate attention. Hopefully, the following text can be a first step to clarifying a few things surrounding the role of the Christian Spiritual life and how it relates to one’s mental health.

It is important to understand some basic facts about mental health and the illnesses that threaten a large number of the people that we love. Firstly, mental illnesses can take on a variety of different forms, just like physical illnesses. We often hear people speak about mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders and depression. However, mental illness can also include a variety of other problems, such as schizophrenia, PTSD, personality disorders, and even eating disorders. Many of these are real illnesses that require immediate attention. Nevertheless, our social and cultural norms have sometimes created a negative perception of those who come out and confess that they suffer from such illnesses. It is for this very reason that we as bearers of the Divine Image, we ought to come together and address this all-too-often-neglected subject because after all, this affects us all, but to what extent? According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada:

In any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.

By the age of 40, about 50% of the population will have or have had a mental illness.

Approximately 8% of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.

Anxiety disorders affect 5% of the household population, causing mild to severe impairment. That’s 1 in 20 people.

As for children and youth: 3.2 million of them, aged 12-19 years old, are at risk for developing depression.

Nonetheless, what is really scary is that according to studies, 49% of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor about this problem. As a matter of fact, 4 out of 5 children who need mental health services in Canada will not receive them. Even worse is that we often neglect to realize the direct correlation that exists between mental illness and suicide. In Canada, suicide is among the leading causes of death in 15-24-year-old Canadians – it accounts for 24% of all deaths among our young people. This means that in Canada, 1 in 4 young people aged 15-24 have died because they have taken their own lives…

Some may want to believe that because we are part of the Church, and that because we are a strong faith-based community, that we are somehow immune to all this. This is false, even very false. We have parents, brothers and sisters, spouses and children, the young and the elderly, who CAN AND ARE affected by mental health issues. In order to remedy the situation, we begin with awareness, and

then we must move towards encouraging all those who are suffering to seek healing, both spiritual as well as through the medical world.

Saint Paul the Apostle, when writing to the Corinthians, explains to them that as the Church, they are one body comprised of many members. He goes on to explain that because we are all part of the same body, that when any of us suffer, we all share in that suffering. He says the following:

“[…] But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:24-27)

These verses are a clear understanding that we ought to all take upon ourselves the responsibility to address any and all of those things that affect any member of the body of Christ. How do we address mental illness? As mentioned earlier, there are those who would argue that the remedy truly is a more serious relationship with Christ. However, such an argument can be challenged by asking the following: if anyone had a child who had a burning fever that was out of control, would they stay home, light a candle, and say a prayer…or would they pray on their way to the hospital emergency? Or again, would anyone feel comfortable in trying to tell a cancer patient that if they had true faith in God, they should skip their chemotherapy sessions and spend more time at Church? I would hope that all of you would agree that in both of these cases God does not look down at the person who is ill in shame or disgust because of their “lack of faith” for seeking medical intervention. On the contrary, the Church teaches us that part of God’s great gift to humanity is our capacity for medical advancement. Seeking medical help is not insulting to God.

There is, however, something to be said about the great positive impacts a strong spiritual life can have for someone who is battling a mental illness. Although the solution is not found uniquely in addressing your spiritual life, when a person strengthens their spiritual state and begins to address certain behavioral and cognitive habits, they can then grow closer to preparing the way for healing. Let’s take for example anxiety disorder. Although it may have many causes, part of the treatment can be spiritual in nature. A great example of this is the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. When repeated prayerfully in times of anxiety, this not only helps a person cope with their very real medical condition but also allows them to raise their heart to God.

Also, the Church teaches us that the sinful passions are very often tied to the illnesses that are manifest in our minds and bodies. Depression, for instance, can sometimes be traced back to passions and spiritual illnesses such as greed, dejection, acedia, and fear. In identifying how to battle such passions, a person who is suffering from anxiety or depression can begin to pave the way for a quicker recovery as they seek professional therapy and medical intervention. Our faith very clearly supports and encourages all those who suffer to pursue both therapy and medicinal treatment if need be. And as Christians, although we seek to heal through medical practices, we trust that all true healing is granted to us by the Lord.

Saint Anthony the Great speaks to this very subject and says the following:

“ […] it is absurd to be grateful to doctors who give us bitter and unpleasant medicines to cure our bodies, and yet to be ungrateful to God for what appears to us to be harsh, not grasping that all we encounter is for our benefit and in accordance with His providence. For knowledge of God and faith in Him is the salvation and perfection of the soul.” [St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 2]

Saint Anthony here does not discourage us from seeing doctors; on the contrary, he even compares some of their undesirable methods of treatment to those the Lord sometimes employs with us. Let us, therefore, come to the realization that in addressing our physical and mental health, while also constantly seeking to be healthy in heart and spirit, this is indeed part of God’s will for us as His children.

As said earlier, as the Church, a true and living body of the Lord Jesus here on earth, we encourage all our viewers who may be battling with any form of mental illness to speak out to a loved one, a servant of the Church, or a Spiritual Father. Know that as a member of the body, we are here to support you, pray for you, and help you in your journey to physical, mental, and spiritual health. God bless you.

Remember, know your faith, live your faith, and teach your faith.

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