Catholic Teaching on Mental Health

“I was sick and you visited me”

Used with permission: Justice and Peace Office, Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney

All human beings regardless of what ailment they suffer are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and we are called to love them “as another self” (Gaudium et Spes, 27). Pope Saint John Paul II affirmed in particular that all who suffer from mental illness are also made in the image and likeness of God.

We are also need to remember that Christ is present in those who are sick: “I was sick and you visited me.” (Matt 25:36) so as Catholic Christians we are called to treat all who are ill (whether physically or mentally) as they were Christ himself.  Pope Saint John Paul II confirmed this when he said “Well, Christ took all human suffering on himself, even mental illness. Yes even this affliction, which perhaps seems the most. absurd and incomprehensible, configures the sick person to Christ and gives him a share in his redeeming passion.”

According to the social teaching of the Catholic Church, access to basic healthcare is the responsibility of everyone and an essential element of the common good.

Another principle of Catholic Social Teaching, the universal destination of goods dictates that the poor, the marginalised and all those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern. This means that people with mental illness should be treated with a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 182) as they have often (and sadly still are) marginalised and excluded. Pope Saint John Paul II directly affirmed this point in his address In the Image and Likeness of God: Always? Illness of the Human Mind to the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health-Care Workers on the problem of mental illness, when he said: “The Church looks on these persons with special concern, as she looks on any other human being affected by illness.”

Pope Benedict XVI dedicated the Celebration for the 14th World Day of the Sick in 2006 to those who suffer from mental illness. In his Message for that day he stated:

“On this occasion, the Church intends to bow down over those who suffer with special concern, calling the attention of public opinion to the problems connected with mental disturbance that now afflicts one-fifth of humanity and is a real social-health care emergency….”

He called for a new and better approach in dealing with mental ill-health which called for better medical treatment for people with ill health as well as better treatment of them as persons. He also expressed his hope that the wider community would be more understanding of people with mental health issues and those that care for them many of whom are unpaid as they are family members or volunteers.

Pope Saint John Paul II also emphasised everyone’s duty to respond with active charity to those who suffer from mental illness, particularly because the kingdom of God belongs to them:

It is everyone’s duty to make an active response: our actions must show that mental illness does not create insurmountable distances, nor prevent relations of true Christian charity with those who are its victims. Indeed, it should inspire a particularly attentive attitude towards these people who are fully entitled to belong to the category of the poor to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs (cf. Mt 5:3).

In his Apostolic Exhortation to Young People, Pope Francis, recognised the desire of young people experiencing mental illness to live life to the full and called on the rest of the community to recognise their unique contribution:

“The desire to live fully and experience new things is also felt by many young people with physical, mental and sensory disabilities. Even though they may not always be able to have the same experiences as others, they possess amazing resources and abilities that are often far above average. The Lord Jesus grants them other gifts, which the community is called to recognize and appreciate, so that they can discover his plan of love for each of them.” (Christus Vivit, 149).

At the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Perth in 2019 Archbishop Fisher of Sydney gave an address on young people and mental illness. These are some of his remarks:

“In the Church context, our families, schools, universities and youth groups could probably do more to educate and intervene appropriately in this area. We also need to identify the settings, peer support networks and technologies that might help. We must identify those most at-risk and contributing factors such as stigma and discrimination. We can learn a lot from contemporary society in this area.”

“Throughout history, Christians sometimes recognised mental illness for what it is; they loved and prayed for the sick, and cared them at home, in the parish and in the first mental health institutions established by religious orders. But at other times they misunderstood psychological disorder as diabolical possession or moral failure, and applied remedies that were far from helpful (citing Cf. H. Koenig & D. Larson, “Religion and mental health: Evidence for an association,” International Review of Psychiatry 13(2) (2009), 67-78).

“Christians led the way in providing mental health institutions and services. But sometimes they shared in the widespread ignorance and prejudice towards the mentally ill and suicides. Nowadays the Church understands that “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish or fear… can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC 2282) And the Church, at its best, champions the rights of the weak, including the psychologically frail or ill, and offers them friendship and a spiritual home.”

Reference: Justice and Peace Office, Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney