May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Since this website features the Catholic perspective on young adult concerns, and since depression is a growing mental health concern among young adults, I decided to write about the address of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II to participants in the 18th International Congress promoted by the Pontifical Council For Health Pastoral Care On The Theme Of “Depression”, which was delivered on November 14, 2003.
In his address, St. John Paul II expressed his concern about the growing spread of depression, and stressed that it reveals “human, psychological and spiritual frailties which, at least in part, are induced by society”. He highlights “the effect on people of messages conveyed by the media which exalt consumerism, the immediate satisfaction of desires and the race for ever greater material well-being”. He stresses the need to “propose new ways so that each person may build his or her own personality by cultivating spiritual life, the foundation of a mature existence” and for “policies for youth aimed at offering the young generations motives for hope to protect them from emptiness or from dangerous fillers.”
Any perceptive observer of modern society will find it hard to disagree with these thoughts. At the same time, however, the question arises of whether being spiritual-minded and knowing the meaning of life is enough to prevent depression. St. John Paul II himself recognized that depression has “different complex aspects” and does not dismiss the role of therapy in curing this modern malady.
For me, regardless of what the real cause or causes of the modern depression epidemic are, one of the most important parts of the address is where St. John Paul II exhorted everyone – and not just therapists – to reach out to those suffering from depression. He said:
“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. For them as for everyone else, contemplating Christ means letting oneself be “looked at” by him, an experience that opens one to hope and convinces one to choose life”.
Indeed, reaching out to the depressed is a corporal work of mercy (“to visit the sick”) as well as a spiritual one (“to console the sorrowful”) in demand. A depressed person is a brother or sister in Christ, one of the least of Christ’s brethren in whom we serve Christ Himself. Reaching out to the depressed may difficult as they may seem to refuse help and we may be clueless on how to approach them (fortunately, there are articles and other resources such as this one). But in the end, they appreciate that we accompany them in their sufferings, although we may not be able to solve their problems.
St. John Paul II also gave practical advice to help depressed persons in the spiritual life. He said:
“In the spiritual process, reading and meditation on the Psalms, in which the sacred author expresses his joys and anxieties in prayer, can be of great help. The recitation of the Rosary makes it possible to find in Mary a loving Mother who teaches us how to live in Christ.
Participation in the Eucharist is a source of inner peace, because of the effectiveness of the Word and of the Bread of Life, and because of the integration into the ecclesial community that it achieves. Aware of the effort it costs a depressed person to do something which to others appears simple and spontaneous, one must endeavour to help him with patience and sensitivity, remembering the observation of St Theresa of the Child Jesus: “Little ones take little steps”.”
The last point he suggested is very important. Those who’ve experienced the illness tell me that for a depressed person, the littlest spiritual struggles can be overwhelming: waking up early to go to mass, concentrating in prayer, being patient with a well-meaning friend who wants to help but does not know how. The teaching on spiritual childhood has been, for them, a very encouraging reminder that God appreciates the littlest efforts made out of love for Him, and readily forgives us and lifts us up from our falls.
Finally, St. John Paul II has very consoling words for those suffering from depression:
“In his infinite love, God is always close to those who are suffering. Depressive illness can be a way to discover other aspects of oneself and new forms of encounter with God. Christ listens to the cry of those whose boat is rocked by the storm (cf. Mk 4: 35-41). He is present beside them to help them in the crossing and guide them to the harbour of rediscovered peace. “