Week 10 – Mental Health and Pastoral Care

Catholicism and Mental Health and Wellbeing

The greatness of human beings has been long celebrated by theologians, especially in regard to the biblical context that humans are made in the image and likeness of God, as told in the book of Genesis. Philosophers also have echoed the supremacy of human beings in the context of having sophisticated rationality. Descartes argued that rationality is the essence of human beings, evident in his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am”. However, the fragility of human beings cannot be denied, and often manifest in the illness trajectory, especially, but not exclusively, in mental health, where mental illness can create a disconnect between what one believes and his/her lived experience of mental illness.

Studies of individuals with mental health issues identified the positive impact of spirituality in their recovery process and there is a growing acceptance of the role of spirituality in rehabilitation and recovery processes in terms of stress tolerance and coping skills, as well as increasing emphasis on cultural competence and understanding the holistic context of health and wellness. After all, there is a relationship between the meaning of spirituality and illness recovery: spirituality echoes the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life, while illness recovery underscores the idea of reclaiming and rebuilding one’s life, and developing a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Reference: Lawrence Onwuegbuchunam, Ph.D., RN. (2019).The Promises and the perils of Spirituality and Religion in Addictions and Mental Health Recovery. Research Gate. Page 1 – 3.


Christ the Physician of Souls and Bodies

Confessors, penitents and others have long recognised that there are links between the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the person; that identity, direction and community are important for both; that knowing one is infinitely loved by God and receiving moral and spiritual formation can ground a certain resilience to psychological stress; that prayer and meditation, confession and anointing can be significant contributors to wellbeing; that the Church can provide healthcare and psychological services as well; that the Christian community can instantiate and model communion with the mentally ill; and that it can and should champions the rights of the psychologically frail in the wider community even as it offers them friendship and a spiritual home.

Reference: Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. (2020). Religion and Mental Health – Speaking the Truth in Love. Sydney Catholic Business Network Luncheon, Hyatt Regency. Archdiocese of Sydney. https://www.sydneycatholic.org/addresses-and-statements/2020/religion-and-mental-health/

The Clergy as a Resource for Those Encountering Psychological Distress: Review of Religious Research

In terms of sources of referral sought by people who have a mental illness, the most clinically trained mental health professionals (i.e. psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric social workers) are less popular than either the clergy or medical doctors and the clergy were by far the most frequently mentioned source of self-referral (amongst Catholics and other denominations).

The popularity of the pastor as a source of help may be due to the fact that he or she has something different to offer in terms of spiritual resources undergirding this type of counselling: individuals seek the clergy for help in times of psychological distress because they are seeking something other than general psychological help. In part this choice may be due to a wish not to internalize problems but find external reasons for them. It is also probable that, at least for church-goers, those seeking help are looking for it within what is a familiar environment.  

Pastors are seen as the help seeker’s first contact, but it is expected that they will quickly refer clients to “more appropriate” resources if the problem is psychological rather than spiritual. Research shows, however, that clergy seldom refer help seekers to psychiatrists and psychologists. Yet less than 10 percent (sometimes less than 5 percent) of those coming to the clergy for help are ever referred to other mental health professionals.

There is a clear need for an intensive community mental health care orientation among the clergy, and/or practitioners of family medicine, psychiatrist/psychologists and psychiatric social workers. People would continue to do what they already do – go to different sources depending upon perception of need and obtain guidance from those sources most suited to their specific problem by way of a referral system between clergy and mental health professionals. In other words, clergy/mental-health professional referral should be a two-way street.

In general, we conclude that those coming to the clergy for help in times of psychological distress are seeking religious rather than psychological counselling. Spiritual help appears to be what they want. Research seems to indicate that more attention should be given to the unique contribution the clergy offer as clergy rather than “apprentice” psychologists.

Reference: H. Paul Chalfant; Peter L. Heller; Alden Roberts; David Briones; Salvador Aguirre-Hochbaum; Walter Farr. (1990). The Clergy as a Resource for Those Encountering Psychological Distress: Review of Religious Research, Vol. 31, No. 3. Page 305-313.

The Ambivalent Attitude of Healthcare Professionals Toward Spirituality

Yet despite this, some healthcare professionals are ambivalent about the role of spirituality in the illness trajectory and recovery sometimes due to their own personal worldviews and incompetence in the assessment of patients’ spiritual needs and intervention. Barriers exist among healthcare professionals that prevent them from exploring patients’ religious beliefs due to the healthcare giver’s lack of clarity and fear about spirituality, which then translate to their attitude and assertion such as: it is the chaplain’s job and not my job.

Another reason why there is resistance and ambivalence among mental healthcare professionals about the role and the value of spirituality is that modern psychiatry uses a paradigm that fails to recognise spirituality as an empirically grounded aspect of mental function. This sense of resistance among some healthcare professionals tend to manifest not just in psychiatry alone, but in the practice of medicine in general, despite the fact that grounded in empirical literature are the positive impact of spirituality in patients’ coping and recovery from serious illnesses.

Although unhealthy religious and spiritual beliefs could negatively impact mental health and addiction recovery, empirical research also underscores the fact that healthy spirituality and religious beliefs could positively impact illness recovery, especially, but not exclusively, in the areas of mental health and addictions.

Reference: Lawrence Onwuegbuchunam, Ph.D., RN. (2019).The Promises and the perils of Spirituality and Religion in Addictions and Mental Health Recovery. Research Gate. Page 4 – 5.