"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Getting pastorally hip to mental illness

A great lacuna in pastoral care is that of the mentally ill. There's long been a well-developed system of care for the physically ill; many families, parishes, and religious orders are exemplary in that regard. And the sorts of miracles that count in the canonization process are almost always ones of physical healing. Physical sickness is something that everybody can understand and sympathize with the victim about. But mental illness is quite a different matter.

It is always intangible, often frightening, and until the last 100 years or so was almost totally incomprehensible on its own terms. Before the biochemical basis of much mental illness was understood, the default reaction to "crazy" people was akin that of the ancient Jews about leprosy: take it as a sign of some sort of evil and marginalize the victim as a threat. Given human ignorance and nature, there really wasn't much else to be done. Only in the last fifty years or so has society begun to take a more therapeutic approach. Now we diagnose, medicate, and where possible, put people in talk therapy. Sometimes treatment works, more or less; sometimes it doesn't. But it is still very hard for most people to distinguish between mental illness and moral or spiritual evil. We see nothing untoward about the fact that those known to be mentally ill are disproportionately represented among prisoners, among the homeless on the streets, and among those who live alone under a roof but without love. The mentally ill are among the "poor"—whether economically, spiritually, or both—whom we often view as somehow deserving of their fate.

Thus I've often heard it said, in effect, that if he or she would just take their meds, listen to their betters (therapists or otherwise), and pull up their socks, they would be better "adjusted" and thus would not suffer quite the problems they do. Hearkening to Freud's description of psychoanalysis' purpose, the attitude seems to be that if the mentally ill "would only" do this and that, their artificial problems would dissipate so that they could be freed to deal constructively with the natural problems of life. That is sometimes true; but often it is not. What's really needed is the transformation that only God's love can bring about, which is typically meant to be shown by the members of Christ's Mystical Body, the Church. Yet even in the Church there's still blame attached to being mentally ill. It's much like people's attitude toward a smoker who gets cancer; consider the reaction to Andrea Yates, a diagnosed schizophrenic who drowned her five children. All that has a big if subtle effect on the way we treat the mentally ill. In religious bodies accordingly, there's hardly any system of formal pastoral care for the mentally ill. Nobody quite knows how to deal with it beyond the means I've already indicated. It seems just too much, too intractable.

But it doesn't have to be that way. On December 8, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI as the World Day of the Sick, the pontiff focused on the mentally ill, invoking the conclusions of a Vatican conference last year. Thus in countries of high economic development, "experts recognize that the origin of new forms of mental disturbance" is a consequence of "the negative impact of the crisis of moral values," he writes. "This increases the sense of loneliness, undermining and even breaking down traditional forms of social cohesion, beginning with the institution of the family, and marginalizing the sick, and especially the mentally ill, who are often seen as a burden for their families and the community." It is only natural that, with ever-increasing individualism and consumerism, there will be more mental illness such as depression, the most common form of mental illness, along with less social capacity to deal with it successfully. The very factors that exacerbate the problem tend to preclude the solution. As a result, even many outwardly successful people feel able to get by only with legal psychotropic drugs. In the long run, this is not going to work.

According to the Zenit report, Benedict XVI encourages "the efforts of those who work to ensure that all mentally ill people are given access to necessary forms of care and treatment," and solidarity with families caring for the mentally ill. Addressing the mentally ill themselves, the Pontiff invites them to offer their "condition of suffering, together with Christ, to the Father." Such are necessary and salutary. But they do not attack the root of the problem that the Pope himself identified above. The only way to do so is by the means I implied in my post below on the significance of the Immaculate Conception. That is very much up to the Church, which is us. Already overburdened pastors can't do it themselves.
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