19th Sunday of OT (B)
August 12, 2018
God really knows best
August 12, 2018

Counselling, Confession can counter Depression

Saints like St Augustine and St Teresa of Calcutta struggled with depression.

By Kaelanne Jordan, kjordan.camsel@rcpos.org. This is part two of the two-part series  begun last week. Writer Kaelanne Jordan interviewed Sharon Bermudez, MsMFT, EMBA, CEAP on the issues of suicide and depression.

Bermudez reiterated there is never value to pathologising or putting down a person by mislabelling or using a destructive label to their condition. The label ‘crazy’ has very little therapeutic value as it stands as a very strong barrier to seeking help.

She highlighted that the patron saint of parish priests, St John Vianney; Doctors of the Church, St Augustine and St Thérèse of Lisieux; founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), St Ignatius of Loyola; and St Teresa of Calcutta stand among notable saints who struggled with depression in their lifetimes.

“Their great contributions to humanity, to the teachings of the Catholic Church and their continuous intercession as saints on our behalf would have been lost, had they been mislabelled as ‘crazy’” she said.

Bermudez also commented on the stigmatisation of the psychiatrist, a medical doctor who specialises in mental health. She emphasised that a negative public perception of a psychiatrist as someone who treats ‘crazy people’ prevents persons from seeking help because they don’t want others to know that they require assistance from the doctor for ‘mad people’.

However, in mental illness, depression is one of the most treatable illnesses that responds favourably to medical intervention. She referred to two authors Dr Aaron Kheriaty and Msgr John Cihak who speak to the healing power of the Sacraments in their book The Catholic Guide to Depression: How the Saints, the Sacraments and Psychiatry Can Help You Break its Grip and Find Happiness Again.

Dr Kheriaty notes that the relationship between psychotherapy and the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) once again points to the need for constructive dialogue between priests, psychiatrists and other therapists. “Neither one can or should try to replace the work of the other,” he said. Dr Kheriaty identified psychiatrists and other mental health professionals as “instruments of Christ’s healing in psychotherapy”.

While people try to cope with depression in a variety of ways, not all coping mechanisms are equal, Bermudez said. She mentioned that there are positive coping mechanisms such as spirituality and exercise, that are likely to lead the person to healthy management of their condition, with little or no negative consequences.

Bermudez suggested that a healthy integration of the person’s spirituality involves the juxtaposition of faith as concretely expressed through prayer, “availing oneself of the sacraments and trying to live in accordance with one’s Catholic faith with a willingness to seek and receive help from those medical and mental health professionals who are also instruments of Christ’s healing.”

Notwithstanding, she recognised that it is often difficult to pray and sustain one’s normal level of spiritual activity in the presence of depression. It is important to remember that at these times the Spirit prays for us (Rom 8:26).

In contrast, negative or unhealthy coping mechanisms may provide short-term relief, but they hurt the person in the medium to long term. “For instance, some persons drink to cope with their depression. However, alcohol acts as a depressant to the nervous system and makes a person feel more depressed in the long run.”

Bermudez affirmed that counselling focuses on coping mechanisms that will be “adaptive” and functional. Applying these mechanisms—the appropriate use of medication, and the identification of strategies to deal with the life events that may have triggered depression or that holds it in place—often create the traction that is needed to decrease both the depression and any related suicidal symptoms.

The value of ‘just talk’

The benefits of talking with a therapist/counsellor exceed just “getting it off your chest”. It is sometimes the first time that we have heard ourselves verbalising our thoughts on the matter in a neutral environment and it can create a “mirror” that allows us to recognise the negative direction our thoughts have taken.

“Talking with a therapist or counsellor is often geared toward problem solving and trying to support you in your effort to become unstuck and/or to find adaptive ways of coping. Sometimes that creates an ‘aha’ moment where we recognise irrational thoughts or that our thoughts are unfair reflections of our struggle. The therapeutic setting also creates an opportunity for feedback from the therapist.”

Bermudez said, although sometimes this feedback can confirm our own thoughts, many times it presents us with alternative perspectives that can help us to widen and deepen our thinking on the issue, and to challenge non-productive or distorted thought patterns. She explained, “This helps us to develop alternative ‘cognitive frames’ for the problem, that can sometimes be useful in helping us to get unstuck.”

Ultimately, Bermudez advised that when someone is willing to share their story, it is a privilege that should not be taken lightly. She thus encourages friends and loved ones to try to understand that person’s unique story in a non-judgmental way.

She further emphasised that although presence, love and support is critical and irreplaceable to the person who may be depressed/suicidal, depression is an illness that requires intervention from those who are trained to diagnose and treat it.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing depression, suicidal thoughts, and planning or have made recent suicidal attempts, seek help from a trained professional who can treat and/or refer for further treatment. It may save a life.