“They are humans too.”
That thought reverberated in my mind as I gazed upon the statues of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. I was in a Carmelite monastery that day. I reflected upon my spiritual struggles and knew that the saints were my role models in such a crisis of faith. But looking back, despite being a mental health worker myself, I experienced several mental health concerns. At that moment, I was reminded of my humanity—that I am a body and a soul—and spiritual matters are not the only thing I should take care of. I should also take time and pay attention to what hurts in my mind and body. Then that’s when it came to me. Even the saints who perfected their faith were humans, too. They struggled not only in their faith but also in their minds and bodies.
With such thoughts in mind, my head ran down a list of saints who may have suffered mental health concerns. St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of those that came into my mind. Writings suggest that he suffered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), particularly religious scrupulosity. Then, there is St. Jane Frances de Chantal, who experienced grief to the point of depression and anxiety. There’s also St. Joseph of Cupertino. While the renowned “flying saint” didn’t suffer mental health concerns, he suffered developmental problems that almost rendered him unqualified for the priesthood. Among all the saints I have mentioned so far, St. Louis Martin, father of the Little Flower, had the most clear-cut condition of mental health concerns. It was suggested that St. Louis Martin suffered depression, dementia, panic attacks, and speech impediments. His health declined so much that he was confined in an asylum.
How the Saints Took Care of Their Mental Health
Of course, most saints who suffered mental health concerns lived in eras when clinical psychology wasn’t fully established yet. However, certain accounts of their lives suggested their mental health struggles and how they overcame such concerns. From their experiences, we can learn a lot about how to take care of our mental well-being.
First, the saints also sought professional help. Even when they were very close to attaining complete spiritual perfection in their earthly lives, they didn’t just “pray away” their mental health struggles. They sought help from medical professionals. A perfect example would be St. Oscar Romero, who sought a psychiatrist’s help in battling his OCD and scrupulosity. St. Louis Martin, as I mentioned earlier, was hospitalized because of his dementia. St. Albert Chmielowski, like St. Louis Martin, also sought psychiatric care and hospitalization to treat his hypochondriasis and melancholy. Prayers and sacraments are valid ways to help us in our struggle against these concerns. But as the saints showed, we don’t have to shy away from seeking professional help if needed as well.
Secondly, the saints didn’t have to face these struggles alone. In a mental disorder diagnosis, social support is the primary factor in making the prognosis or course of a mental illness “good.” Take, for example, St. Augustine of Hippo. Several accounts suggest that he also suffered from depression. But because of the support of his ever-loving mother, St. Monica, St. Augustine overcame his mental health condition and eventually became a leading bishop in the Church. St. Jane Frances de Chantal, who, because of the support and guidance of her friend St. Francis de Sales, overcame her grief and depression. This humility of saints in asking others’ help for dealing with their mental health struggles also speaks a lot about holiness. For we, as children of God, aren’t only tasked to share in others’ sufferings. We are also bound to let others share our own struggles.
Lastly, but most importantly, the saints show that there is no shame in having mental health struggles. Even in deepest madness such as schizophrenia and dementia, these people lived their lives attaining greatness and holiness. The saints show us that while mental health concerns are real, hope is a greater reality. While mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety are valid struggles; holiness and greatness, through the mercy of God, are still within our grasp!
Compassion for Mental Health Issues
In today’s world, especially amidst the pandemic and its attendant social disruptions, more and more people are suffering mental health concerns. These struggles are often invalidated and stigmatized. Real people who suffer these real concerns are often inflicted with hurtful words such as “It’s all in your mind,” “You’re just making it up to seek attention,” or even worse, “You have a weak faith in God that’s why you have depression!” I pray that in these trying times, may the saints of heaven become our role models not only in faith but also in mental well-being. May the saints allow us to see the reality of mental health concerns, and may we have compassion for our brothers and sisters burdened with such struggles every day.