Therapy, mindfulness, self-help books, and everything related to them have become a growth industry in recent years. There’s currently a song out on the major pop radio stations in which the singer references things her therapist told her, and another where she talks about her “issues.” Perhaps because I’m a therapist myself it seems to me that caring for one’s mental health is the “in” thing these days. With all this buzz about mental health, many Catholics are looking to therapy as well, but oftentimes there are questions and even confusion regarding the role of mental health in one’s spiritual life. Let me give some pointers from the perspective of a Catholic therapist.
Integrating Mental Health and Spiritual Health
First of all, though perhaps elementary, I think it is worth saying that your mental health, and your relationship with the Lord, are two different things. Both need to be addressed, and you cannot ignore one without doing a disservice to the other.
In a nutshell, mental health refers to your general state of well-being: your thought processes, emotional status, coping patterns, inter- and intra-personal relationships, and overall approach and ability to engage with the world based upon your lived experiences. Confusing? Think of it this way. If you were to honestly and authentically answer the question of “how are you?” that response would be very indicative of the status of your mental health.
A Catholic therapist takes all of that and seeks to integrate it with the spiritual life—with one’s relationship with the Lord. By doing so, we address both body and soul, both mind and spirit. Mental health is an aspect of our humanity (and also greatly affects our physical bodies), and is something that was created by God. Therefore, we need to let the Creator of our mental health inform how we approach it.
Counseling vs. Spiritual Direction
I frequently get asked about the distinction between spiritual direction and counseling—especially if your therapist is Catholic. While not a spiritual director myself, as someone who has received spiritual direction for the majority of my adult life, my understanding is that it is meant to help you develop and deepen your relationship with the Lord, learn how he speaks to you, discern the specific path he is calling you to, namely your vocation and mission, and to act upon and deepen it.
Conversely, as a therapist, I am not in the business of confirming or denying vocations. Rather, I understand my role as that of helping to clear the pathway so that one is free to hear the voice of the Lord—both through learning about themselves as well as healing from wounds that cloud and complicate their relationship with the Lord and others. In other words, one may not be free to hear and respond to what the Lord is calling them to because they are shackled down by struggles related to their mental health.
Confusing spiritual direction and professional therapy also misses that essential element of our humanity which is our mental health. Putting everything at the feet of spiritual direction often tends towards scrupulosity, over-spiritualization, and may come off as calloused and harsh. “You’re struggling? Pray about it!” Turn to God with your problems, absolutely, but what things are you doing or not doing, what coping patterns have you learned, what trauma or losses have you experienced, that are hindering your ability to carry your cross? Therapy gets to the heart of that. In doing so, therapy doesn’t take away the cross, but I believe it does make the burden lighter in that it helps the one carrying it to become stronger.
Healthy Minds, Health Spirits
Hence the need for integration—to wed body and soul. Again, while they are separate, mental health serves to either enhance or complicate your relationship with the Lord. One such example is your attachment style—the way you learned to relate to your initial caregivers is a determinant in how you relate to others in your life, and especially affects how you view and relate to God, the Father, our ultimate attachment figure. Your subconscious understanding of attachment very much colors how you understand God—perhaps as a loving father, a condemning authority figure, or an aloof person who is removed from your daily experiences.
Likewise, if you have any experience of trauma or loss, you inevitably learned coping mechanisms to help deal with it. While those may be necessary to survive an experience of trauma, more often than not they impede your ability to relate to the Lord and are no longer serving you. St. Paul writes, “I do not do the good I wish to do, but the evil I do not” (Romans 7:19). While that relatable reality is by in large due to the nature of our humanity and a result of Original Sin, I can’t help but think that some of our inability to pursue the good we wish to have in our lives is due to unaddressed mental health issues. What cycles or patterns have you developed in life as a result of trauma, broken relationships, anxiety, depression, or addiction, that keep you in the cycle of sin?
Helping Carry Our Crosses
As a Catholic therapist, I view my role as that of Simon of Cyrene. I help to accompany someone as they carry their cross. While I can’t take it away, I can ease the burden. And hopefully, when I leave, they will find that their cross is a little lighter in that they were able to shed some unnecessary burdens they’d been bearing. In doing so, they become more full: free to respond to the Lord’s calling in their life as fully integrated and flourishing human beings.