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Catholic Christianity and Mental Health: Beliefs, Research and Applications

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

by Harold G. Koenig, M.D.

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

The primary audience for this small book is mental health professionals and clergy who are called upon to help Catholics deal with emotional and other mental health problems. This book is the first in a series on Christianity and mental health for Catholics and Protestants. This volume will briefly trace Catholicism from its roots and describe how the faith tradition has evolved over time. Present-day Catholic beliefs, practices, and values will then be succinctly summarized and their possible impact on mental health discussed (both positive and negative). Research on Catholic beliefs/practices and mental health in Catholics will be reviewed in order to identify the evidence base on which recommendations for mental health professionals and clergy will be grounded. The classical applications relevant to the treatment of Catholic clients and members of congregations based on the research evidence, clinical experience, and common sense will be recommended. After a brief summary and conclusions, the text will be followed by a list of references that have been cited therein.

Catholics come from a particular social culture and value system. Catholic beliefs that promote compassion and love of neighbor, particularly to those who are less fortunate, should influence attitudes toward those with mental illness. It should not be surprising that the Catholic Church founded one of the first mental hospitals for care of the mentally ill in 490 AD in Jerusalem. In the 6th century, the Church cared for the mentally ill in monasteries. The first psychiatric hospital in Europe, the Pryor of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, was established by the Church in London in 1247. The latter hospital was later replaced by BethlehemHospital or Bethlehem, which remains there today as the BethlehemRoyal Hospital.

Admittedly, the Catholic Church was anything but compassionate to the mentally ill at different times in history, particularly during the Middle Ages. As the number of people with mental illness grew in Europe, there was pressure on the ecclesial authority to do something, leading to the view that mental illness was caused by demonic possession. The Inquisition was established in 1233, and Malleus Maleficarum (guide for the treatment of the possessed) was published in 1487. This was followed by a wave of persecution that would lead to the death of thousands of mentally ill people who were burned at the stake or decapitated during the next 200 years. In the famous Salem Witch Trials in 1692 in New England, nearly 100 people would be accused and 19 executed for being witches or demon-possessed. Much can be changed since then.

The Catholic Church today has some of the largest programs proving social services to the mentally ill in the U.S. and around the world. Catholic Charities in the U.S. had its origins in 1727 when French nuns established an orphanage in New Orleans. Today it serves approximately 7 million people each year by providing disaster assistance, emergency financial aid, health clinics, housing services, and mental health counseling. The book is filled with hope for our mental health facilities and ways to include more people in assisting them in this line of Catholic help.

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