I’m going to ask that as a truly open-ended question. Do we, namely, (Catholic) Christian academics, care about mental illness as a serious locus theologicus, a phenomenon demanding serious theological reflection?
For the sake of naming my positionality, I will say that I ask this question as a Catholic Christian theologian training at a prestigious university to teach systematic theology at the college level and to research for the academy, the church, and society. So, in other words, I must admit I’m not primarily a pastoral theologian, a Christian clinician, or somebody engaged first and foremost in practical theology. I will write and teach in a scholarly fashion. Probably my direct audience is comprised of other academics.
I would, however, like to think that my theological concerns are not only rigorously intellectual but also intentionally tethered to the reality of life as we experience it: as part of a living tradition of Christian faith, as part of our quotidian existence as it unfolds everyday. I want the theology that I do to invite the fruitful convergence of the theoretical and the practical. I think this goal is especially achievable in the subfield of theological anthropology, which is my main area of expertise.
In employing the term “mental illness,” I am appropriating NAMI’s definition, which states that mental illness is ”a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” Types of mental illness include depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, autism spectrum disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, etc. Conditions associated with mental illness include insomnia, suicidal ideation/attempts, psychotic episodes, etc.
Specifically, I ask this question about mental illness and our attitude toward it because I see that people — all sorts of people — are suffering on a daily basis because they live under the burden of mental illness. I believe that their suffering is intensified by the fact that they are often rendered invisible at best and demonized at worst in our society and probably in our church as well (though there are some good sub-pockets of support here and there in both forums).
At one level, it’s a question about what “we” can do for “them,” but even phrasing it that way is too easy. Many of us struggle with various forms of mental illness. So I think that we need to keep both poles of this diagnostic tension in mind:
On the one hand, mental illness affects large swaths of our population (for example, the homeless population throughout the United States) and should not be divorced from the kind of structural analyses that are geared toward issues of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, body type, age, and disability. Mental illness tends to become worse for abjected peoples in society (there’s some kind of correlation there, which still leaves open questions about causal lines). But, at the same time, it is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to any particular condition and predicted ahead of time. Anybody, even a person who ranks among the most powerful in society, can find herself subjected to the burden of a mental illness. With all this in mind, I believe that we in the academy are perhaps in a position to evaluate mental illness with a social, structural lens in place, especially because these issues affect society as a whole beyond the academy. I think we should do so.
On the other hand, I would hope that we in the academy would not rest too comfortable in the “we” language that risks a false sense of hermetic protection from “them,” from those other people who struggle with mental illness. No. This is uncomfortably up close. We struggle with mental illness. Many of us are mentally ill. Emphasizing the first-person-ness of mental illness puts me in mind of Allie Brosh’s poignantly self-disclosive, brilliant chronicling of her encounter with severe depression. It’s a first-person account, importantly, and it has been massively popular. It has clearly struck a significant note with people. Hmmm.
But based on impressions gleaned from various personal and professional encounters over the years, here are a couple formidable barriers I see to our having a serious theological conversation about mental illness in the Catholic academy. I’m calling it like I see it. (Also, it would be really great if everybody reading this post recognized that I am responding to a series of specific interactions I have had and witnessed with various people in Catholic academic contexts over the years. So the potential response of: “Well I’M a Catholic theologian and being the good way about these issues and I’m therefore pissed that I feel unfairly called out in this post” is a misfire and a waste of energy. Just because you may already be conscious of the things I am identifying doesn’t mean everybody is.)
First, we Catholic Christian theologians rightly want to offer a sharp critique of American consumerism and of anything that smacks of bourgeois comfort (do many of us also have many of those bourgeois comforts? Yeah. But that’s a post for another day). So sometimes when we think about our country’s pharmaceutical complex, we think about the problematic culture of shallow, possessively individualistic, permissive self-medication. The trope of “There’s a pill for that!”–& such. Perhaps we also have in our minds this image of indulgent, emotionally absent parents obtaining a trumped up ADHD diagnosis for their actually-emotionally-starved-yet-acting-out children so that they don’t actually have to pay any attention to them and can go back to their Smart Phones and Business Meetings. –Okay, this is probably devolving into a series of clichés from a romantic comedy involving Jennifer Aniston, or Natalie Portman in one of her movie-making ruts, but you get the point.
I do agree that these problems are in our society. We Americans do have a tendency to self-medicate in an indulgent and selfish way. Yes.
So, now, when I go on to make a different point, don’t then illogically think that I don’t recognize the commonly decried problem that I just named. Here’s the distinct point I want to make: it is not only unhelpful but also damaging to enfold all issues of mental illness and psychological treatment into a critique of American (psychological/pharmaceutical) consumerism and thereby to condemn such treatment, even unwittingly. This is a problem of going too far in our diagnostic castigation. We may not even always know when we are doing it. But when we are tempted to launch into a critique of American self-medication through pharmaceutical means, it would behoove us to choose our words carefully and to realize, chastened, that some people need psychological and psychiatric treatment to function on a daily basis. For many people, getting treated for their mental illness is the difference between life and death. We’re outside the realm of self-indulgence in these cases. And whenever we rail against the culture of permissive self-medication and don’t qualify our claims at all, it’s likely that we are secretly hurting somebody listening to us, somebody who needs psychiatric treatment or even just therapy to function and to cultivate a basic sense of self under duress. This kind of unwitting stigmatization increases the burden of having a mental illness and compromises our supposed identity as the Body of Christ.
Second, relatedly, I think that, at least in some Catholic academic theological circles, there’s a real allergy to contemporary psychological approaches to the human person. I sort of get that in part, especially since the antipathy is somewhat mutual. I’ve read enough psychology at this point to be familiar with the commonplace idea that God is only some sort of projection mediating psychological needs and fears (and this in itself is also a theological and philosophical idea going back a couple centuries now). Reading that kind of thing over and over again gets pretty tiring if you’re a theologian who thinks God actually exists in some kind of theonomous relationship with creation.
So, given this acrimony between theology and psychology, I think what develops is a sort of turf war regarding who can more adequately categorize the depth desires of the human person: are we all about our desire for God and/or God’s desire for us, or we all about drives and complexes that have nothing to do with God? (And, as you can see, the competing systems of explanation are set in diametrical opposition, natch.) This is a really complicated architectonic divide between fields, so I’m not going to weigh in much about the divide as such. In general I think it would behoove theologians to take the insights of contemporary psychology more seriously. The social sciences are clearly not above critique and critical distance, but becoming familiar with the basic moves of contemporary psychology does not entail a slavish devotion to one particular psychological school of thought (and yes, psychology is not a monolithic field!). Basically, I think that employing the right kind of psychological insight into the human person can increase our theological acuity in such matters.
Specifically, for example, something like therapy can dramatically help people explore the wounds and traumas of their childhood or also help them examine and then transcend distorted thought patterns diminishing the quality of their life. It’s important to keep this in mind if we feel tempted to rail against “the culture of the therapeutic.” We theologians need to make sure we check out pejorative connotations with “the therapeutic” against the reality that therapy can be a necessary source for people who are working through wounds and managing mental illness.
Anyway, I want to put these barriers on the table so we can discuss and perhaps work through them. I went to the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting recently (and I really, really love that society). While I attended many stimulating talks about ecology, interreligious encounter, the mission of the Catholic Church today, the problem of white supremacy, etc., I couldn’t help but wonder, especially at the plenary sessions where hundreds of members were in attendance: how many people sitting here are struggling under the burden of mental illness? How many of them assume their mental illness to be outside the consideration of theological analysis? What can we do to begin to address theologically the problem of mental illness and to provide companionship and de-stigmatization for those (of us) struggling with such conditions?
Do we care about mental illness?