Reader E.V. sends along an interview with Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, author of The Catholic Guide to Depression. I haven’t read the book yet, but this is the second time it’s been recommended to me, and the interview is full of gems of good sense.
On overspiritualizing the problem:
I think most therapists have had the experience of Christian patients who prematurely ‘spiritualized’ what were actually more psychologically or biologically rooted problems. Perhaps this was done with the encouragement of a priest or spiritual director who was not adequately informed about the nature and causes of mental illnesses like depression.
That was me as a teen and twenty-something: so convinced of the high-falutin spiritual nature of my depression that the thought of a cure seemed tantamount to a rejection of the Cross itself. A word of caution in there, too: a priest can be as holy a man as you like, but that doesn’t mean he always knows what he is talking about.
On distinguishing depression from the “dark night” experienced by some of the saints:
With the dark night of the spirit there is an acute awareness of one’s own unworthiness before God, of one’s personal defects and moral imperfections, and of the great abyss between oneself and God. However, a person in this state does not experience morbid thoughts of excessive guilt, self-loathing, feelings of utter worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts – all of which are commonly experienced during a depressive episode.
That’s an important distinction. Being deeply aware of your own unworthiness is one thing; being obsessed with your own imperfections is another. I’ve experienced the latter any number of times, but the former is something that I’ve only glimpsed, and that in my best moments. The difference between them is as clear as the difference between breathing mountain air and trying to breathe water.
Kheriaty doesn’t consider depression totall outside the realm of the spiritual, either, though:
We must also be convinced that whatever we suffer in life — whether from depression or any other affliction — is something that is allowed by God. Suffering is a mystery, and Christianity’s answer to suffering is mysterious — because the answer is Jesus Christ on the cross. Our faith does not promise a life without suffering; quite the contrary. We should not expect that prayer, or Scripture reading, or the sacraments, will magically cure all mental disorders or alleviate all suffering. What Christian faith offers us is the hope and the strength to endure whatever crosses God allows in our life. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl put it, those who have a why to live can bear with almost any how. Frankl knew something about suffering, having been a prisoner in Auschwitz.
And some positive recommendations, with a caveat:
…prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and other spiritual practices like cultivating gratitude and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression and help in recovery. This does not mean that religious faith inoculates a person against depression, nor does it mean that depression is due to a lack of faith. But it does suggest that faith may have an important role in a person’s healing.
The whole interview is very down-to-earth and very human, but with something luminous and wholesome behind it. Read the whole thing here.