Mental health, spirituality and faith – in defense of the Catholic Church

The benefits and positives that religion can provide are rarely highlighted in the mainstream media

OP-EDThe Catholic Church is probably one of the most controversial institutions in modern day Ireland. This is, in fairness, for very understandable reasons concerning the failings of the leadership of the Catholic Church in the past especially concerning the handling of the child sex abuse scandals and the cases of the Magdalene laundries. But I believe that the criticism of the Catholic Church has gone too far. It is time for it to stop and for Irish society to acknowledge the many positives this institution can offer. For me there are three dimensions to the Catholic Church in Ireland.

There is the socio-political voice with strong opinions on various social issues. Personally I believe this is increasingly making people more  disillusioned and becoming less open to actively engaging with this religion. Secondly, there is the inspirational community of Catholics who go out in to society and look after the most vulnerable, oppressed and secluded members of society. Fr. Peter Mc Verry would be an example of this tremendous work with the homeless. I could write countless articles about this dimension of the Catholic Church in Ireland but for today I will concentrate on the third aspect. This is the community of people who come together to celebrate their faith in a deeper meaning to life and I am talking about those who pray, go to church, go to confession, etc.

Right now Irish society is experiencing a ‘’tsunami’’ of mental health problems. There is no doubt in my mind that this is intertwined with the declining number of people in Ireland who are engaging less with religion. I would like to argue that faith and religion can contribute enormously to positive mental health. I would even go further to say it can help the young people struggling with mental health difficulties today and this is rarely acknowledged or offered as a possible solution.

I am passionate about these two issues as my one personal story is connected to mental health and the Catholic Church. I grew up in a devout Catholic family. We prayed, went to mass and were involved in the community parish. Looking back now it was almost an idyllic childhood. Heaven I would say. But lingering behind all this was that a very close member of my family suffers from a severe form of bipolar disorder. This affected me negatively for obvious reasons. For example this member of my family has been hospitalised at least ten times in my life. I am so thankful that this person is of a strong faith as God knows what could have happened if not.

This leads to me on to the issue of stigma. We often hear in the Irish media about the ‘’dark old days’’ in the mid 1900’s where it is fair to say that Ireland had a overtly powerful influence from the Catholic Church. This was a time period where women in particular were oppressed and I totally agree with this. But I think it is honestly laughable to praise the modernity of Ireland for its perceived inclusion. Claims are made like; ‘’Modern Ireland has entered a new age of openness in the recent years’’ or ‘’Ireland has come out of the shadows from it’s dark past’’.

The stigma my family endured was shameful to say the least in relation to our struggles with this member of our family whom we love so much. Recall how this is in Celtic Tiger Ireland and Recessionary Ireland. This is not the dark days of the 1960s. I remember, for example, how on the bus home from school as a young ten year old, another of my peers was mocking the local ‘’mental institution’’. He referred to this place as full of ‘’crazy people’’ or ‘’nutjobs’’ or ‘’psychos’’. My own family member had recently been discharged from this ‘’mental institution’’ full of ‘’psychos’’. I will never forget the pain inside I felt. Stigma is just an unfortunate trait of societies. We have members who are excluded from our own Irish society today, the Traveller community for example.

As I started to grow older in to my teen years I began to growingly turn away from my Catholic upbringing. It was unpopular and uncool to go to mass on Sunday so I was more than happy to leave this ritual in the past. I would also say that I began to become a follower of a new religion as I entered my mid teens with the influence of the wider media having a very strong influence on my own personal beliefs. This was the religion of atheism of course. Atheism also has a ‘’pope’’ like figure who is charming, intelligent and a great debater. This would be Richard Dawkins. I read his book ‘’The God Delusion’’’ and was utterly enthralled by his aruments of pure reason. But underneath all this I would say I was not truly happy. I had this lingering feeling of emptiness or purposefullness that many have felt who turn away from their faith.

Currently Ireland is having an outpouring of people sharing their own struggles in relation to mental health.  I have followed this stream of stories  and I am so happy and relieved to see this happen. I look up to heroes such as Bressie, Donal Walsh or Conor Cusack who have spoken out about their very own struggles or have tried to reach out to people in our community who may be struggling with mental health difficulties. According to a comprehensive study by the RCSI, 1 in 5 young adults are struggling with a mental health difficulty. Ireland also has some of the highes rates of suicides in Europe. For example we are second highest after Lithuania among under 19s according to The European Child Safety Alliance.

We all acknowledge this is a problem and thankfully we have found some practical solutions to dealing with your mental health. We are told to talk about our problems or to exercise. We are advised to find a new hobby or join a local community group. We are also advised to visit a GP or a councillor. But we are never told that a form of spirituality might help. This is because anti-Catholicism is the only accepted form of prejudice in modern Ireland. It is politically incorrect to be a practising Catholic. The benefits and positives that this religion can provide are rarely highlighted in the mainstream media.

Personally, I believe all religions are the essentially the same thing. I just happen to be a Catholic in Ireland. For the small amount of knowledge I have on history, I understand that all societies in the history of humanity have had a form of religion. From my own personal experience, I have found religious people to be very happy, generous and strong individuals. There are many studies that enhance my claim. Some say that it is the God aspect that helps while others claim that it is the community aspect. I quite frankly don’t care. I just believe that we should embrace and cherish the Catholic Church in Ireland with a healthy scepticism. Karl Marx, the father of communism, once said that, ‘’Religion is the opium of the people’’. He was of course stating this as a criticism but I do believe it is true. If we lose the the Catholic Church in Ireland and religion in the Western world, what will replace them?

With the encouragement of my sister, I have recently become re-engaged with the faith of my youth, This was because I never felt truly happy as an un-practising Catholic or agnostic. I have began to go to mass every Sunday and also to pray. I can also state that I have never been happier in my recent life. Some would say this is coincidental but I have to disagree. If you are a staunch atheist and you are truly happy, I am happy.

My advice to any young person who is currently struggling with their mental health and have not yet found a solution, is to try again with the faith of their youth/family. Try praying, try going to church, try meeting a faith based group or even try listening to the inspirational radio station Spirit Radio. There is absolutely nothing you have to lose.