As followers of Christ, true God and true man, it is hard to avoid the truth that we inhabit two worlds—the seen and the unseen. This is so basic a tenet of Christianity that we easily forget it and gravitate towards one or the other, the natural or the supernatural. We have all met people who supernaturalize everything, referring all that happens in our world to the angelic and demonic. On the other hand there are also those who tend to only accept natural explanations for what happens. Our Lord however taught us to keep one foot in each of those worlds. There were the sick whom He healed and those whom He exorcised. There is perhaps no arena where this dichotomy is more obvious than mental illness.
On the one hand there are those who think that the remedy is simply to pray the problem away. Prayer must always be part of anyone’s therapy (more on this in a moment) so this is a difficult point to contend. But for most people prayer isn’t enough. Or, more accurately, the answer to their prayer is found through the help of therapists. God rarely acts in a vacuum. He always uses secondary causes when they are available to carry out works of His Providence. We may pray and pray for healing, but only receive it when we go to the doctor. Does this mean that God did not deliver? Of course not. He simply wanted to share His power of healing with one of His creatures.
Removing the Stigma
Within Christian circles, mental illness is stigmatized. Mental health problems are not just problems because someone’s faith or trust in God is not strong enough. That can always be the case, but it need not be the direct cause. There are people of incredible faith that nobly carry the cross of mental illness. If anything, those who think this way are the ones who do not understand the Faith.
An authentic Catholic understanding of the human person, as both body and soul, leads to the recognition that because of our fallen nature, defects in our bodies can spill over into the way we see reality. Think about the person who is drunk—their judgment is impaired. Did the alcohol somehow drip into the seat of judgment, the intellect? No, but when our senses are impaired we cannot judge correctly. That which is in the intellect, was first in the senses as the Scholastics were fond of saying.
So too with the person with mental illness. They may have a bodily defect which causes them to judge reality incorrectly. Or, their early experience or exposure to a trauma may have hindered their ability to judge reality properly. Perhaps they need a medication to restore the body back to its proper function so that it can send clean data to the intellect. They may additionally need counseling on how to judge reality correctly.
As an aside, many Catholics fear receiving counseling because the counselor may not be Catholic. This is a reasonable fear, but just because they are Catholic doesn’t make them good therapists. What one should look for is someone who has a correct definition of mental health. Mental health consists in the ability to judge reality correctly. This means they have an understanding of man as a body/soul composite with a purpose outside of himself. Only once this is established would you assess their clinical capabilities. In this regard, it is no different than choosing any other kind of health care provider. If a cardiologist thinks that a healthy heart is one in which only one ventricle is functioning, you would not choose him, even if he was the most clinically gifted doctor in the world. Simply asking the therapist what his or her definition of mental health is, can often protect you from wasted time and doing more harm.
Psychology and Catholicism have been in conflict since the advent of modern methods, but this need not be the case. Anyone who reads St. Thomas’ Summa on human nature and the virtues realizes he would have made an excellent psychologist. This is because of his correct anthropology. There has been a rediscovery of sorts of St. Thomas’ works and many schools are teaching them to those training in psychology.
It used to be that anyone who was mentally ill was thought to be possessed. In this regard the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme where everyone assumes that the problem is clinical. However, just because there were cases in the past where a supernatural explanation was sought when there was a natural one, doesn’t mean that they weren’t right some of the time. Supernatural explanations still remain valid. While not everyone who is mentally ill is demonically tormented, this does not mean nobody is. In short, sometimes when someone claims to be hearing voices, they actually are.
A Third Way?
This opens up a third possibility—one in which we acknowledge that we are standing in two different worlds. This is the one that most people overlook because they fall into an either/or mentality, when in many cases it is both/and. The person can be suffering from some natural mental illness which is only exacerbated by the presence of the demonic. The devil is a bully and loves to kick people when they are down, especially when he can hide within some natural illness.
One of my boys suffers from Autism and this has made him a target of the diabolical bully. It was his condition that attracted the evil one and made it easy for him to hide while he tormented my son. The demonic oppression got so severe that we had to seek the prayers of an Exorcist. Through the prayers of Exorcism, he was freed from the oppression. But, and this is a very important but, he was not healed of his Autism. His symptoms were greatly reduced and his response to therapy since then has been overwhelmingly positive. But the clinical condition remained—for that God is using natural means. For the supernatural problem, He used the supernatural solution of the Rites and Authority of the Church (as a side not, for those of you interested in hearing about my son’s story, I did an interview with my friend Pete for his podcast in which this among other topics related to Spiritual Warfare).
The point is that there are many cases where the problem is really both natural and supernatural. For the good of the person we need to recognize this as real and likely option. In the majority of cases it will not be necessary to seek out an Exorcist, but still spiritual remedies will need to be applied.
This is where the “just pray and it will go away” folks have a point. There is almost always a mixture of the natural and supernatural causes involved and it is always good advice to apply spiritual medicine to all mental health problems. Prayer alone may not be sufficient, but it is always necessary. Psychotherapy should always be accompanied by an intense prayer life and an active Sacramental life, including regular Confession and Communion, along with a healthy dose of Eucharistic Adoration. When someone has been in therapy for a long time, making minimal progress adds these practices to their regular therapy they usually begin running towards mental health.