By Dr. Matthew Breuninger, PhD
As Catholics we are called to grow in the perfection of charity. We must continually seek to grow in our capacity to love God and our neighbor: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This vocation to holiness requires that, within our particular state in life, we say yes to the will of God at each moment.
Simply stated, holiness is nothing else than growing in perfection and intimate union with Jesus through our constant surrender to his will for us in each moment. This is how we conform ourselves to Christ’s love. This means, however, that holiness is deeply personal and unique to the individual. We say yes to the will of God as the specific creature that we are, endowed with particular temperaments, personalities, intellectual abilities, deficits, struggles, and dispositions.
This is good news! Holiness is possible despite the fact that we inherit propensities toward depression, anxiety, panic, or more serious mental health problems. Holiness is not the absense of psychological struggles; rather holiness is accepting God’s will and conforming oneself to Christ despite psychological struggles. Often we believe that to be holy is to be without psychological suffering: “If I were really holy I wouldn’t have panic attacks, depression, anxiety, or crippling insecurity.” Yet look at St. Therese. She struggled with a religion-focused subtype of OCD called scrupulosity. Despite the anguish caused by her scrupulosity she achieved holiness by accepting God’s will in the midst of the storms. Therese was also highly emotional from the time she was a child. Her sister, who was with her in the convent, wrote that Therese never stopped being emotional. Rather, Therese learned to follow God’s desires for her despite her strong emotions. Or, take St. Jerome, a man famous for his anger. Jerome struggled with this his entire life. Temperamentally, he was just quick to anger. However, his holiness consisted in following the will of God precisely as a man who was quick to anger. Indeed, our psychological constitution, the experiences (positive and negative) that we’ve had, and our physical endowments are the context of our holiness. They are the conditions in which we choose to follow God’s will for us. Rather than being a hindrance to holiness, mental health struggles oftentimes are the environment within which God has asked us to follow him.
This is not to say that we should not seek counseling or psychiatric help to alleviate our psychological struggles. When mental health concerns are causing impairment and distress in our lives, we should seek out the appropriate professionals to try and alleviate our suffering. Mental health issues can make simple tasks like going to praying the rosary, adoration, or even Mass feel incredibly difficult and unfulfilling. It is not uncommon that once mental health issues are addressed, a person feels more free and better able to say yes to God’s will in their life. Frequently, within the Catholic community, we need to dismantle the stigma around seeking mental health treatment. This stigma can dissuade individuals who desire to seek mental health treatment from getting the help they need.
Regardless of whether one needs professional help to deal with mental health concerns, our Catholic faith contains within its very fabric practices that serve as the foundation of both holiness and mental health. Let’s take gratitude for example. Psychological research has found that writing a daily gratitude list decreases depressive symptoms. Gratitude also helps us appreciate the tremendous good (both big and small) in our life and recognize that all of these goods ultimately come from God. This humble recognition helps to dispose us to accept God’s direction and plan for our lives.
To put it all together, it is important to point out that staying close to the rhythms and practices inherent in the Catholic way of life provides us with tools that help us achieve holiness and improve our mental health. However, for those still struggle with mental health concerns, seeking professional help should be encouraged as a sign of hope, a mark of faith in God’s desire for their healing, and a testament to their courage. Our psychological struggles do not indicate an absence of holiness, despite making simple tasks sometimes very difficult. Rather, our mental health struggles actually serve as the context in which we have been particularly called by God to pursue his will. Our temperament, fears, anxieties, tendencies toward depression, neuroticism etc. are the place in which we decide for or against, toward or away, God’s will. Indeed, let us use the help and support of the Sacraments, the Saints, and psychological sciences to pursue mental well-being and holiness.