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How Catholics can conquer depression

An American psychiatrist explains what inspired him to write a guide to the condition specifically for members of the Church

By on Thursday, 2 May 2013

‘Our understanding of depression can be more complete if we draw on insights from medicine and psychology, on the one hand, and our Catholic tradition on the other’

‘Our understanding of depression can be more complete if we draw on insights from medicine and psychology, on the one hand, and our Catholic tradition on the other’

I was motivated to write the book A Catholic Guide to Depression because I believe that our Catholic tradition – including the writings of the Church Fathers and saints – has something important to say to those suffering from this terrible affliction. Depression is often misunderstood; most people mistakenly believe it’s nothing more than intense or prolonged sadness, when in fact it’s a complex illness that can profoundly impair a person’s mental and physical functioning. Because of mistaken assumptions, those who are afflicted with clinical depression often suffer in silence, unrecognised by others. I wrote the book first to speak to those who suffer from depression. I hope it will also be helpful for family, friends, clergy, and spiritual directors to gain a better understanding of depression, so that they can more effectively support their loved ones.

If someone is afflicted with cancer, this person is flooded with sympathy from family and friends, and support from the local parish, perhaps with special mention in the general intercessions at Mass, and so on. If someone suffers from depression, this person probably receives, at best, a few well-meaning but ineffective attempts at sympathy from family or close friends, but often without true understanding. There is rarely public mention of the problem due to the stigma of mental illness.

I recall one patient, a married Catholic woman with several children and grandchildren, who had suffered from both life-threatening breast cancer and severe depression. She once told me she would choose the cancer over the depression, as the latter caused far more intense suffering. She tragically committed suicide a few years after she stopped seeing me for treatment.

In a 2003 address on the theme of depression (included in an appendix of the book), Blessed John Paul II said that depression is always a spiritual trial: “This disease is often accompanied by an existential and spiritual crisis that leads to an inability to perceive the meaning of life.” He went on to stress how non-professionals, motivated by Christian charity and compassion, can help those with depression: “The role of those who care for depressed persons and who do not have a specifically therapeutic task consists above all in helping them to rediscover their self-esteem, confidence in their own abilities, interest in the future, the desire to live. It is therefore important to stretch out a hand to the sick, to make them perceive the tenderness of God, to integrate them into a community of faith and life in which they can feel accepted, understood, supported, respected; in a word, in which they can love and be loved.”

Depression is a complex condition that affects more than just a person’s emotions; it impairs one’s cognition, perceptions of the world, physical health and bodily functioning. The causes of depression are likewise complex. The medical model that characterises depression as simply a “chemical imbalance in the brain” is true but also incomplete. Neurobiological and genetic factors do play a causative role; but so do psychological, interpersonal, behavioural, cultural, social, moral, and indeed, spiritual factors. Depression should be understood and treated from all of these complementary perspectives. Medications and other biological treatments have an important therapeutic role in many cases, as does psychotherapy provided by competent, sensitive, and skilled professionals. These should be integrated with spiritual support and spiritual direction, a life of prayer and the sacraments.

All truth is symphonic: there is a harmony between faith and reason, theology and science, if only we discover it. Our understanding of depression can be more complete if we draw upon insights from medicine and psychology on the one hand, and from our Catholic tradition on the other. There is a need for a constructive dialogue here, as John Paul II pointed out to a group of psychiatrists in 1993: “By its very nature your work often brings you to the threshold of human mystery. It involves sensitivity to the tangled workings of the human mind and heart, and openness to the ultimate concerns that give meaning to people’s lives. These areas are of the utmost importance to the Church, and they call to mind the urgent need for a constructive dialogue between science and religion for the sake of shedding greater light on the mystery of man in his fullness.”

According to its original Greek root, the word “psychiatrist” literally means “doctor of the soul”. But in modern psychiatry, this original meaning has largely been abandoned: psychiatrists today tend to focus on the body, especially the brain, to the exclusion of the soul. Other critics have levelled the opposite complaint against psychiatry and psychology, claiming that we overstep our limitations and often tread on territory that was once occupied by religion. For example, Archbishop Fulton Sheen wondered whether the psychoanalyst’s couch has replaced the priest’s confessional in the modern world.

Despite the legitimate concerns raised by these critics, John Paul II reaffirmed that a genuine dialogue presupposes that both parties involved have something worthwhile to say to the other. The confessional was never meant to cure neurosis or other mental disturbances, and the couch was never meant to absolve sin. John Paul II continues in the same address: “The confessional is not, and cannot be, an alternative to the psychoanalyst or psychotherapist’s office, nor can one expect the Sacrament of Penance to heal truly pathological conditions. The confessor is not a physician or a healer in the technical sense of the term; in fact, if the condition of the penitent seems to require medical care, the confessor should not deal with the matter himself, but should send the penitent to competent and honest professionals.”

While the sacraments alone were never meant to cure mental afflictions like depression, they can and do play a healing role in a plan of recovery. The principle of “sacramentality” in Catholic theology, based on the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, affirms that the material world can mediate spiritual realities. As creatures of both body and soul, we relate to God through our senses. If I’m burdened by guilt or by sins of the past (often the case in depressed persons), when I go to Confession I’m able, in a very tangible way, to hear words of absolution from the priest who is acting in the name of Christ and the Church.

Many people who have gone to Confession describe this powerful experience of psychological healing. They are able to walk out knowing with total conviction that they have indeed been forgiven, that the burden they’ve been carrying has been lifted. The Catholic sacramental system is indeed consistent with our psychological make-up: we need to hear these words of absolution in order to more tangibly experience God’s mercy. We also know that sin not only harms our relationship with God but with others as well. In Confession there is the experience a sense of reintegration with a community: the priest represents the Church, the community of Christians, with whom the penitent is reconciled. All this is powerfully healing, and lifts a burden spiritually and psychologically.

Likewise, in participating at Mass, one’s own psychological suffering is united to the suffering of Christ – who suffered for me psychologically and physically. In Holy Communion, I receive his flesh offered for me and his blood poured out for my redemption and my healing. While this does not magically cure all physical or mental afflictions, the grace of the sacrament does strengthen me to bear these burdens in union with Christ. Our Lord says now to those who suffer what he said to his Apostles at the Last Supper: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (Jn 16:20), and he assures us: “In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage, for I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).

Dr Aaron Kheriaty is the director of residency training and medical education in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. A Catholic Guide to Depression is published by Sophia Institute Press (Sophiainstitute.com)
and available on Kindle from Amazon.co.uk


This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 3/5/13

  • Barbara Lesher

    Oh how true its misunderstood…..I suffer from this and everyone says go to a doctor and get on meds….I don’t believe in meds for everything…I get my BIBLE and that’s my meds… I live in a house with4 and no one talks about good things..no positive anywhere …so I make my own….really believe in prayer and reading my GOOD book… thank you to my parents who brought me up in a Good Catholic way…I also carry my rosary everywhere…never caught without it….

  • http://www.facebook.com/patricia.pulliam.35 Patricia Pulliam

    I very much enjoyed this article. I am involved with the Rachel’s Vineyard post abortion healing retreat weekends. I am always amazed at the efficacy of this particular retreat model. It integrates solid peer counseling techniques and Church Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession. Your article helped me understand why.
    Faith and reason….and healing. A win win situation.
    Patricia Pulliam

  • Susan P. Fujita

    An AWESOME ONE! I hope you could have this translated into Japanese language as there are so many Japanese people suffering from DEPRESSION and so many unknown cause of diseases. Hope to get hold of this book. GOD BLESS!

  • Erin Pascal

    Very good read and well-written article! It is true that many people don’t really take depression seriously when in fact, it is a very complex condition that can lead to serious effects. Winning over depression is a difficult battle but we can surely overcome anything for God is with us. The Bible is my remedy and there is no better feeling whenever I start reading. :)

  • Matthew Doyle

    I would very much like to read this, but also gain some of Dr Kheriaty’s insights into more severe and enduring mental illnesses like Bipolar and Schizophrenia.

  • SoCalChick

    There exists a need to analyze the quality of one’s very thoughts. A negative thought about one’s value as a human being must be immediately rejected, rebuked and replaced with the truth that we are loved dearly by Our Father in Heaven. Staying close to the Sacraments, praying the Rosary and spiritual reading are all tools one can also incorporate. It is also important that the depressed person works, endlessly if necessary to uplift their thoughts about themselves. Pray a novena to the Holy Spirit to ‘control your thoughts’ and bring them in conformance with God’s Truth. Also, do not ever forget that Satan is fighting for your soul. Do not underestimate the ability of the ‘fallen’ to mess with your thoughts. Take back your life, turn it over to Jesus, to Mary, to the Holy Trinity. When those self-defeating thoughts start their treacherous loop, think of Jesus and His Peace. Evict the negative thought and replace it with the truth … and that is that you are dearly loved by God. Become a warrior for your own soul and remember that the Holy Rosary is very powerful.

  • anon

    SoCalChick’s post is quite enlightening in this regard.

    CTS books online has some interesting passages in its publication “Exorcism” £1.95, as does the book “Interview with an Exorcist”

    The new Meditatio (Benedictine) Centre in London is offering helpful courses,

  • Catherine

    Exercise, good diet and as much sun as possible also have been shown to help, especially exercise. Of course when suffering from severe depression it is extremely had to motivate yourself to do anything or get anything accomplished. Managing to leave the house before 3 or 5pm can be a huge effort. So social support (coming to someone’s home and helping them to leave to exercise) is essential. Depression is extremely isolating, so we must not leave someone alone in their depression. I think a major factor of prolonged depression is the lack of social support and recognizing when someone should not be left alone. We tend to see major depression as purely an individual’s problem and not something anyone else has any responsibility for, unlike almost any other kind of chronic illness when we as a society do what we can to relieve the suffering of the individual.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    “The Bible is my remedy and there is no better feeling whenever I start reading. :)”

    If reading GOD’S WORD brings so much, what it will not bring when you start meditating regularly!

    T.P.SSP

  • editman

    SoCalChick’s comment is of the type that irritates me immensely, as one who suffered for years from depression — depression I was fortunate to survive. What I would say to SCC is that if I had had the ability to take all her remedies when I was depressed, I wouldn’t have been depressed! My depression made a lot of her supposed remedies inaccessible.

  • Michael Berry

    A lot of insight there, Catherine. Christ intuited or kept track of the one lost sheep that had strayed; though it is metaphorical of the sinner, it can yet apply to those who stray such as those who unwittingly sink into depression. Members of the Body of Christ ought to grow in the virtue of “intuition” and take note of those whom they stop seeing in church and pursue them to ask if they’re OK, to show them someone notices and cares about them. What a future development of Church and pariosh outreach mission and ministry that would be, eh? Lift up and strengthen them and you will get more members of the BOC who can then minister to others.

  • Michael Berry

    Interesting to see who gets more positives, SoCalChick or editman! I can relate well to editman, as I have suffered for many years with clinical depression. But, how does editman know that SoCalChick is worthy of your irritation for good reason, i.e., that she is talking out of her head and not from experience or at least as having gleaned wisdom on the subject? Even if you were to look at her advice and her comment, there’s nothing pushy or negative there. She seems to be an awesome person with some excellent tips and inroads to helping in the cure. editman, you write with good grammar and intelligently. Why do you sound a little on the negative side and dismissive?

  • Michael Berry

    I can relate well to editman, as I have suffered for many years with clinical depression. But, how does editman know that SoCalChick
    is worthy of your irritation for good reason, i.e., that she is talking
    out of her head and not from experience or at least as having gleaned
    wisdom on the subject? Even if you were to look at her advice and her
    comment, there’s nothing pushy or negative there. She seems to be an
    awesome person with some excellent tips and inroads to helping in the
    cure. editman writes with good grammar and intelligently. Why do he sound a little on the negative side and dismissive?

  • Brodyn June

    all due respect i have prayed and meditated for years..and when i say pray and meditate i mean 2-3 hours a day minimum..but only medication could help me. it was the same with those i know who also suffered. Please recognize this and encourage people to take medication, it doesn’t make you “weak” it’s the same as a diabetic who needs insulin to survive. I did therapy and prayed and nothing but medication worked. Don’t overestimate your powers, God gave us medicine to take …you don’t pray your way out of cancer either do you ? God gave us doctors and medicine and electric shock therapy ( worked for my mother when nothing else did ) and I am half Greek I know all too well the meanings of psychology and psychiatry – and I also know what it is to suffer – but we don’t need to just live in a state of suicidal despair either…just as a cancer patient isn’t supposed to just lie there and take it …God doesn’t need masochists but fighters in his army.

  • Debbie Edwards

    I have Major Depressive Disorder ….medication is a minimal relief in my case, and in the case of 80% of identified sufferers ….. Medication is the answer for some, but not for most and I am going to buy the book

  • Debbie Edwards

    I have clinical depression ….medication is a minimal relief in my case, and if you are familiar with the stats, for the majority of us. Medication is the answer for the minority and I am going to buy the book …… I am also a colon cancer survivor and I am here to tell you that with prayer, my stage 4 diagnosis prior to surgery, went to barely a stage 2 during the pathology of the large intestine removed ….meaning I didn’t need chemo OR radiation and my survival odds sky rocketed …… God isn’t a 1 hit wonder …. ALL THINGS are possible for those who love Him and live for His purpose ……As for Masochists ….I’d suggest you research victim souls ….God bless you.

  • Brodyn June

    trust me you are on the wrong meds. i tried 18 different ones and was called treatment resistant. than i suddenly tried upping the dosage of one that worked and voila ! cured. therapy is bs. i am super self aware and it never did a thing as if you read about the brain- those who are “treatment resistant” usually in most cases ( like mine) suffered maltreatment or abuse in childhood which changes the structure of the brain the hippocampus part is smaller…it makes sense – mother’s love is like a drug- opiate..if not nurtured with adequate love and parenting your brain doesn’t grow properly. i did everything possible to fight it from therapy to meditation/ prayer and rigorous exercise. MEDICATION will heal you once you nail the right one- proper dosage…that or try ECT. please trust me i am not trying to argue with you i know not just from my own experience but a ton of research i did over the years to fight my battle. You are wrong that medication is not the answer for most- for those with what is the real deal “clinical ” or “major depression” it is the ONLY way out – please keep trying your meds..and if that fails- try transcranial magnetic stimulation or ECT. i read over 40 books when severely depressed on everything from depression to buddhist techniques and all this is just not going to be the answer for you. society wants you to feel “weak ” for using medication..the stigma is there..that the problem lies in your personality or thinking…if that is the case- why is it me ( and so many i know like me – i was hospitalized and all the other people came out cured from medication or ECT – it took time but they got better as i stayed in touch with them- nobody there i knew got better from therapy) for mild depressions that normal people get books and therapy are great for insight. please trust me on this = this man has not had depression. how the hell does he KNOW !! and why is it all my years of suffering and therapy and meditation and kung fu and ballet work i did and research never got me even one ounce better..the longer you leave it the worse you will get- it is a progressive illness as “what wires together fires together” neurons will create habits and you will get worse if you leave this untreated ( IF YOU have “major or clinical depression) and you want to buy a book from some guy who has never had clinical or major depression like he has any clue ??) of course from the outside it looks like it is a thinking problem lol !!! they are so clueless… why is it after years of hard work and prayer and all – i took up my dosage suddenly of one pill that helped…and in 2 days i was thinking “normal” i was not band-aiding anything…all my problems were there i was just “normal” and this “normalcy” made me so thankful to God….i now spend 2 hours a day meditating and doing my best to help people like you get through this. This guy is WRONG. He has NO CLUE what he is talking about. but go ahead waste your money on someones’ advice who has never had severe depression nor been on medications, nor has been around hundreds of patients with severe depression ( i knew about 20 including my own mother who had ECT – she came out a normal person after a few treatments when she didn’t want to try any more medications and she was in a severe state) she had a bit of short term memory loos but the brain recovers…you just don’t know this disease well- you are wrong on your stats even , i have researched it and read every paper ever published…if you go on with untreated depression and you really do have “major depression” you are going to GET WORSE left untreated !! this book and authors like this are dangerous to people like us…they just cannot understand i am sorry to say…we treat cancer and diabetes with medication and medication was used even in ancient Greece for depression ( treated with opiods since the beginning of time and later replaced with SSRI’s in 1950′s ) but if you choose not to listen to me – this is your choice. i am only saying this to help you.please believe me i can answer any questions you might have ( i don’t remember all the details of neurochemistry but i can certainly assure you that medications and in some severe cases ECT is the only way out. best of wishes x

  • Brodyn June

    this is all by a man that has never suffered severe depression- dangerous advice to those of us who were saved by medication. i am so angry with you…because of advice like this i stayed away from medication and i got so much worse over time…trying to fix it or beat this on my own as if i have some weakness….we are not weak. using medication is not weak. it’s a solution to a chemical imbalance that is not fixing on it’s own quickly enough – for normal depressions that people go through therapy etc..is solution…but for chronic and major depression- we NEED and SURVIVE off medications and or/ ECT/ transcranial magnetic stimulation…this book is going to frighten people away from the only thing that saved my life and those people i knew going through the same thing…my friends, people i met in the hospital and my mother who had ECT and was back to normal in one week — save your witch hunt – this is 2014 wake UP !!! because of this dangerous advice you scare people into thinking we are weak or thinking ourselves into depression…not true ! i am naturally an optimist. without my meds i am a wreck. my brain did not get nurtured in childhood, i didn’t get the proper “nutrients” proper parenting – i know all the reasons for it..but all the therapy and exercise and prayer never did a damn thing. just like you can know all the reasons for cancer and come up with all the whys and hows/ maybe he smoked…who cares ! they need medicine and so do we !!!!!

  • Brodyn June
  • Brodyn June

    um i know all about victim souls but they’re fighters. and pro-active. you don’t fight cancer just with prayer …god gave us medicine. use it. or you can be a masochist if you want go right ahead be my guest. if you were an actual victim soul you’d have more guts to fight your battles. you sound far too passive to be one, no offence.

  • Brodyn June

    REALLY ? i trained 4 days a week in Kung FU, while i was in full time Stott Pilates School, i am trained in Gyrotonic, and i worked out 2 hours a day, i eat super healthy vegetarian and no crap, and i can even tell you exercise does benefit for exactly 3 hours only after a tough workout…and the it comes right back i had a whole mood list on it.. exercise and sun are solutions for those with seasonal affective disorder not clinical depression or major depression. so ignorant. be responsible for your depression and put your ego aside and ask humby for help from god and doctors…like anyone suffering does. medications arent’ bandaids- they actually fix the chemicals that are not firing properly via excitor neurons. good luck fixing it the “traditional ways” you’ll be living in misery for a very long time and remember true clinical depression usually turns to major depression when left untreated. name one person that was ever cured via therapy and exercise from depression- you won’t find one anywhere in any research paper…so good luck !

  • Brodyn June

    im cured but it was hell – the longer it was left using these holistic methods from doctors who are still unconsciouslsy on a witchunt and see it as a personality weakness and not a brain chemistry imbalance are who are keeping you sick. and longer you resist your medicatinon worse you will get. but i dont’ care anymore what you do- some people want to be “victims” and suffer i guess- beats me !

  • Brodyn June

    oh so all sinners are depressed ? so by your rational young teenagers that are abused and have depression at a young age because their parents maltreatment- these are sinners. but cancer patients are not sinners? you ignorant hick !!! get off this thread. the witchunt ended in 1500′s ! this is 2014 !!!!! don’t talk about what you don’t know and spew ignorant advice.

  • Jeffrey Dixon

    Nether have worked. I have been tested even dna an there is no chemical imbalance that is present that would cause depresion and dispair, the mri’s all show normal brain devolopment and no damage. The eucharst only makes it worse, atending mass make me feel abandoned and rejected. This is not psychosomatic or placibo effect. Preist I have talked to seem unable to fathom that this is happening and I get the impression from them and most others that I am making it all up. What am I to do? The psych drs I have gone to for help have run these tests my neurologist has run many many more and other then the signs and discriptions I give of the saddness, darkness, being on the outside, unable to know or experience Gods presence, worthlessness, ect. There is no medical,psychlogical peoblem causing it. Anyone out there in at all that can tell me anything please do. I am at the end of what I can handel and the Jesus I trust you is not working, he does not hear my crys for help.

  • Jim Paton

    Read St John of the Cross (Dark night of the Soul) I hope this helps.

  • D Haun

    Jeffrey,
    Have you ever thought about the possibility that your thyroid could be a problem? It might sound crazy, but look into it. Even a slight imbalance in thyroid hormone can cause severe mental problems, but most doctors don’t do the right testing. Check out the book or visit the website. You can call them and get a 1 hour phone session and a referral to a good endocrinologist in your area. I pray that this helps you!

  • lover of jesus

    well said couldnt have put it in better words myself ,a priest once told me that depression is not from god ,

  • lover of jesus

    you were not trying hard enough or else putting your trust in jesus long enough.http://www.howtofindpeace.org/dolindo-ruotolo-how-to-find-peace.html. these word were given by jesus himself,

  • wendy727

    Hi–I don’t know if this discussion is going on; love SCC advice AND i understand exactly what you’re saying–about depression being so disabling that you can’t access those methods. I’m trying to find an online support group but this one has a mean current, at least as I perceive it. I was wanting some help on loving certain members of my family who disdain and ostracize me because of this illness. It is very hurtful and I need to not believe their attitude toward me but at the same time not dwell in resentment, and anger, and bitterness. Maybe there’s a madochistic element on my part of masochism because I keep trying to make connections and am rebuffed. So I need to let go, but in love–because I can’t bear resentment seething inside. I can’t live like that anymore.