“There’s something freakishly wrong with her.”
“He’s insane and bizarre.”
People unfortunately use such expressions when they encounter someone who is suffering from a mental illness, or what mental health professionals call psychopathology. Psychopathology answers and categorizes the question of why someone acts in a peculiar manner, and thus answers the question of, “What’s wrong with him?” Interestingly enough, the more someone understands psychopathology, the more empathy she develops toward those who suffer from being different. She comes to understand how a person arrived at his current problems instead of simply labeling him. This poses a problem, however, for the person of faith: what is the role of sin? Doesn’t sin account for people’s oddities and problems? What, if any, is the connection between sin and psychopathology?
The Interaction of Sin and Psychopathology
Within both categories the person is choosing to perform a misled good with the idea that such a good will bring him happiness and peace.
The interaction between sin and psychopathology has been questioned by therapists and lay people alike, and there are a variety of answers and opinions to this question. Some Christian mental health professionals claim that, yes, there is a direct connection. How could anyone deny that when a person watches hours of pornography that they develop certain interpersonal deficits? Still others believe that no concrete connection exists. Sin has to do with the theological realm, while psychopathology is more scientific and is concerned with the human psyche. Yet, it seems that we need to better frame the question to the following: is there any connection between sin’s effects and psychopathology’s development? Simply put, yes, sin’s effects do greatly influence psychopathology within its course and development. But at the same time, sin and psychopathology can sometimes have nothing to do with each other.
Sin, according to Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” In other words, sin is the desire to perform a distorted good with the idea that the distorted good is better than the true good. For instance, when a person lies to his employer, he may do so because he believes it may lead to a job promotion. The person substitutes the true good (honesty and integrity), for the false good (honor and prestige) with the belief that such a substitution will improve his life.
While there are a variety of definitions for psychopathology, a useful one is: any cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, or intrapersonal distress which causes significant impairment in a person’s daily life. Psychopathology is exacerbated by the use of interpersonal defenses which at one time were successful in maintaining a person’s interpersonal life. For example, while withdrawing from situations at one point helped a person avoid a toxic home environment, this now leads to him losing friendships and thus becoming depressed.
The connection between sin and psychopathology is that within both categories the person is choosing to perform a misled good with the idea that such a good will bring him happiness and peace. However, even once she realizes that her actions are harming her, she finds it difficult to cease performing such actions. It becomes hard for her to imagine a life without such actions. For instance, a person who suffers from depression long enough eventually integrates that depression into her personality. In the same way, a person who lies eventually may lie enough times that he no longer can distinguish between a lie from a truth.
Sins of our Fathers
Sin greatly influences a person’s ability to function since it can pave the road towards certain psychopathologies.
How, though, does sin influence psychopathology? In order to answer that question, we must focus on sin’s effects on human solidarity. When a person commits a sin, that sin affects both her and those around her since the sin darkens the person’s volition. This darkening causes a domino effect where others become susceptible to committing sin since their interpersonal relationships have been skewed by sin and its effects. Let us look at an example to make this concept come to life. When a father begins to routinely drink to excess, he can become belligerent towards both his wife and his children. If such behavior happens enough, the children may begin to develop a conception of relationships as abusive, and that they themselves are fundamentally bad. Such beliefs ultimately lead to the children developing interpersonal deficits which in turn lead to psychopathologies such as depression, anxiety, and general relational troubles.
While the father’s alcohol abuse was a sin, it was also a form of psychopathology. Nevertheless, not all sin is psychopathology and not all psychopathology is sin. Psychology and medicine, for example, contend that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder do not have a psychological origin. Instead, they have a biological one which means that no one can truly develop schizophrenia in the same way that someone can develop depression. You are either born with the genetic predisposition to these disorders or you are not. In other cases, the choices individuals make within relationships help them to develop certain psychopathologies. Yet, within these cases there needs to be a realization that people interact with others only as they have been taught to interact. Thus, we see again how sin greatly influences a person’s ability to function since it can pave the road towards certain psychopathologies.
Breaking the Slavery to Sin…and Psychopathology
Psychopathology is not a character defect, rather it is a part of our brokenness as mankind.
We see that sin and psychopathology can be both closely linked or have no connection. Such is the nuance of studying God’s magnificent creation we call mankind! To reduce psychopathology to sin and vice versa would be a gross simplification of a complex issue. In many ways, attempting to delineate between the two violates one of the main principles of psychotherapy and diagnostics: the need to respect the uniqueness of each human being, and to stand in awe of how wonderfully God has created them. Nevertheless, there is a real connection between sin within the social realm and the development of certain psychopathologies. With this knowledge we should be aware that psychopathology is not a character defect, rather it is a part of our brokenness as mankind. And as such, we should react with empathy and charity to our brothers and sisters who struggle in this way.