Catholics and Depression | CWR Staff | Catholic World Report
A new book co-authored by
a psychiatrist and a priest offers faithful wisdom and learned guidance in
dealing with depression and anxiety.
Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, MD, is the author, with Msgr. John Cihak, STD, of the book, The Catholic Guide to Depression: How the Saints, the Sacraments, and Psychiatry Can Help You Break Its Grip and Find Happiness Again (Sophia Institute Press, 2012). Dr. Kheriaty is the Director of Residency Training and Medical Education in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine. He co-directs the Program in Medical Ethics in the School of Medicine, and serves as chairman of the clinical ethics committee at UCI Medical Center. Dr. Kheriaty graduated from the University of Notre Dame in philosophy and pre-medical sciences, and earned his MD degree from Georgetown University. Msgr. Cihak is a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon who currently works in the Vatican. He helped to start Quo Vadis Days camps promoting discernment and the priesthood at the high school level that now operate in several U.S. dioceses. He has been a pastor and served in seminary formation.
Their book “reviews the effective ways that have recently been devised to deal with this grave and sometimes deadly affliction — ways that are not only consistent with the teachings of the Church, but even rooted in many of those teachings.” The authors were recently interviewed by Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the serious challenges posed by depression and how those challenges can be best addressed through faith, clinical science, and other means.
CWR: The topic of depression is fairly commonplace, but you note that there is no simple definition of "depression". What are some of the major features of depression? Is it just an emotional state, or more?
Dr. Kheriaty: Depression is more than just an emotional state, though of course it typically involves profound changes in a person’s emotions. Sadness and anxiety are the most common emotional states associated with depression, though anger and irritability are also commonly found in depressed individuals. Depression affects other areas of our mental and physical life beyond our emotions. Depressed individuals typically experience changes in their thinking, with difficulty concentrating or focusing, and a lack of cognitive flexibility. Depressed individuals develop a kind of “tunnel vision” where their thoughts are rigidly and pervasively negative. In many cases, suicidal thinking is present, driven by thoughts or feelings of hopelessness and despair. A person with depression often feels physically drained, with low levels of energy, little or no motivation, and slowed movements.
Another feature of depression is what psychiatrists called “anhedonia”, which is the inability to experience pleasure or joy in activities that the person would typically enjoy. Sleep is often disturbed, and the normal sleep-wake cycle is disrupted. Changes in appetite are common, often with consequent weight loss or occasionally weight gain (in so-called “atypical depression”). So we see that depression involves many mental and physical changes, and affects not just a person’s emotions, but also their physical health and their ability to think clearly and act in the world.
CWR: Christians sometime think, or are tempted to think, that depression is a sign of spiritual failure or evidence of a lack of faith. What are the problems with, and dangers of, such perspectives?
Dr. Kheriaty: The problem with this perspective is that it does not recognize that depression is a complex illness with many contributing factors. While we acknowledge in The Catholic Guide to Depression that spiritual or moral factors can be among the causes, we also argue that there are many other factors that play a role in the development of depression, many of which are outside of the patient’s direct control – biological factors, genetic predispositions, familial and early attachment problems, interpersonal loss, traumatic experiences, early abuse, neglect, and so on. If we attend only to the spiritual or moral factors, then we do the person a disservice by ignoring other important contributing elements that often play a significant role in depression. With that said, the spiritual factors, and other behavioral factors within a patient’s control, should not be ignored either. We wrote this book, in part, as a way to bring the medical, social, and biological sciences into dialogue with philosophy, theology, and Catholic spirituality, in order to gain a fuller and more comprehensive understanding of this complex affliction. We hope that this multifaceted approach will help people more adequately address depression from all of these complementary perspectives.
Msgr. Cihak: I would completely agree. I think perhaps sometimes in our desire to get to the bottom of things, we can tend to oversimplify the situation. As Dr. Kheriaty said, there can be many contributing factors. The book reflects an intentionally Catholic approach by integrating the truths of medicine, philosophy and faith. We should keep the whole in mind as well as the deep connection between the body and the soul. In our respective vocations, we have both encountered people suffering from depression who actually manifest a strong faith, which they themselves might not be able to see, but which has been helping them to keep going in the tough times. That being said, we attempt to demonstrate in the book that our Faith has profound things to say about depression, its deepest theological origins, its redemption by Jesus Christ and its transformation in His Church.
CWR: Are psychiatry and Christian faith in opposition to one another? If not, how can Christians discern between the benefits of psychiatry and problematic theories, for example, Freudian or Jungian accounts of religious belief and human relationships?