Trigger warning. This post will discuss mental illness and suicide.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been visiting friends in North Dakota. One purpose for my trip was to reconnect with a lot of my friends that I haven’t seen or talked to in over a year. I drove out for lunch with one of those friends, and we talked about how difficult the past year has been for each of us. We both struggle with neurodiversity - meaning our brains don’t exactly work like everyone else’s (think autism, OCD, anxiety, etc.) We’ve both experienced depression and suicidal thoughts, and have struggled with going to pray and feeling emptiness, like there’s nothing there. At one point our conversation turned specifically toward mental illness and my friend looked up at me and asked “Why?”
There were a lot of questions packed into my friend’s “why." Why would God allow mental illness? Why would He let people be depressed? Why would God let people take their own lives? Why does it seem like God’s grace and help aren’t enough to beat these things? I think if we want to give real, meaningful answers to these questions, we have to take a step back and ask a different set of questions. First, we need to know what mental illness is and where it comes from. Second, we need to understand how God deals with evil in the world and then we need to look at how we can apply that to the suffering that comes with mental illnesses.
The first thing I want to say about mental illnesses is that they are real. They are just as real as any other illness, like cancer or lupus. Mental illness is not something you choose, it is something that happens to you. It can come in so many different forms and it can vary in how intensely it has a hold over someone. Sometimes medicine can really help, other times you need a trained therapist who can give you strategies for how to manage your own brain. You cannot will away a mental illness - it isn’t a matter of sucking it up or toughing it out. You also cannot pray away a mental illness - going to church isn’t going to magically fix your brain. Sometimes mental illness is a result of trauma, other times it just has to do with brain chemistry or genetics. There are things that can trigger the symptoms of a mental illness, and oftentimes the person with that illness doesn’t always know what will or will not trigger them.
In theology and philosophy, illnesses, whether physical or mental, are called “natural evils”. This means that illness isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, it’s a result of original sin, a result of that first moment that sin “broke” the world. So now the question becomes: “why did God allow original sin?” One common answer is that God respects human freedom. God allows original sin to happen because He has this incredible respect and reverence for human freedom. And while that tells us in one way where mental illness comes from and why God allows it, it isn’t a very satisfying answer. Someone might say, “It’s all well and good that God wants us to be free, but why is He letting this happen to me?"
There’s a principle in St. Augustine’s writings that I always find myself turning to when it comes to God and evil. St. Augustine had this idea that for every evil that God allows, He responds to that evil with an equal or greater good. For Augustine, this was the only way to reconcile that God is all good, all loving, and all powerful and He still permits evil. So when evil happens in our lives, we can look at it and ask ourselves “what good things can come out of this?” And when we ask this about mental illness, there are a lot of answers. Someone who suffers from mental illness needs support, and that means they give the people around them the opportunity to love them. Mental illness often makes us question our own worth, and so we have to practice seeing the good in ourselves. People who struggle with mental illness are unbelievably strong - what they deal with on a daily basis creates that strength in them and eventually it gives them the ability to help others who are facing the same things. It’s like what St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
As Catholics we have a unique ability to unite our suffering to Christ on the cross, to love Him by sharing in the pain He endured for us. I think mental illness counts as a cross in our lives that we can use to understand Jesus and connect to Him and His sacrificial love. I think mental illness is a kind of suffering that Christ knows well, especially if you reflect on His agony in the garden, where despair, anxiety, and fear attacked Him in full force. We have a God who enters into every kind of suffering He lets us face - there is nothing He asks of us that He wasn’t willing to endure Himself.
Everything I’ve talked about so far has been about the kind of mental illness that still leaves you with the ability to function. But mental illness isn’t always like this. There are people who are so plagued by mental illness that they can never live a normal life; their illness cuts them off from society. At its worst, mental illness can be a deadly kind of thing that drives people to take their own lives. This suffering calls for community; society has to step up and take care of those who are marginalized. It also has to pay attention to the warning signs of suicide, and teach people to do everything they can to help someone (or themselves) fight those kinds of thoughts. This is the kind of suffering that challenges us to live out our conviction that human life has dignity and value, no matter what, and that everyone deserves to be treated like a person.
When we’re faced with suffering or evil that feels like it’s beyond reason, like it’s just too much, we, as Catholics, have to return to some of the basic parts of our faith. God is good. He loves us. He wants us to be happy, to live good lives, to become saints and be with Him in Heaven. If this is who God is, then whatever He lets happen, no matter how much we may feel like it’s impossible to understand, we have to make a choice to trust Him. God is who He says He is, He always works for what is good, and there is no evil that is bigger than Him.