By Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) — One of the less documented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the impact of lockdowns, uncertainties, and restrictions on the mental health of the millions who’ve had a first-hand experience of the virus, either due to the loss of a loved one, as first responders or as newly unemployed workers.
In an attempt to address the issue, the Vatican has released a document titled “Accompanying People in Psychological Distress in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Members of One Body, Loved by One Love.”
Written last November, due to a delay in translations, it wasn’t published until earlier this year on the website of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, which, among other things, coordinates the work of the Vatican’s COVID-19 commission summoned by Pope Francis to try to imagine a post-pandemic world.
“The psychological suffering caused or worsened by the deep concerns over this unknown disease has been hardly considered,” says the Vatican document. “Most especially, the loss of control over our personal existence and the life that we share with our loved ones has been a source of major concern. When medical expertise and treatments have suddenly proven unsuitable, ineffectual, or unsuccessful, the fear of the unknown has prompted the following questions: What will become of me? What will become of us?”
The document touches on issues such as anxiety, depression, an increase in suicidal thoughts due to the pandemic, and the temptation to despair. It also delves into different ways for addressing some of these challenges, paying particular attention to the social dimension of the human person.
Crux spoke with the man tapped to coordinate the writing of the document, French Msgr. Bruno Marie Duffé, secretary of the Vatican dicastery headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.
“Before the development of clinical psychology and psychotherapy, priests were in some way practicing psychologists, often without knowing it,” he said. “The invitation to prayer, confession, and spiritual direction have, for centuries, offered support to many people. One could say that confidential dialogue with a priest has, today as yesterday, a healing and liberating dimension.”
“When we can speak and feel that we are really listened to, we are better off,” he said.
What follows are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Msgr. Duffé.
Crux: How did the idea of writing about mental health come about?
Msgr. Duffé: Listening to numerous groups of bishops and actors in social ministry from different countries whom we have been meeting through videoconferences during the past year in listening sessions of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission (#VaticanCOVIDCommission), we have understood that the suffering of many people with the COVID-19 pandemic has a direct relationship with mental health.
The experience of confinement, the disruption of social activities and relationships, and, above all, the anguish in the face of an unknown disease, coupled with the death of family and friends, have amplified the mental fragility of people alone or in a situation of depression. In this situation, questions are raised about the meaning of life and, sometimes, anxiety is amplified to the point of a desire to die, when they feel truly alone or without a future. The information that every day tells us about the pandemic, the dead, and the difficulty in facing the future has perhaps only increased this drift of hopelessness.
What was the writing process like, and who was involved in it?
We decided to write a simple but profound text, considering the most decisive dimensions of the phenomenon of the pandemic and of the particular mission of the people who are called to accompany those who suffer psychologically.
Considerations that have to do with sociology (considering the most fragile groups), with psychology (people with their mental, affective, relational, spiritual dimensions), with spirituality, and with pastoral practice (mission of the church community and of those who assume a service to welcome or accompany people) seemed important.
Many of the faithful think of priests and pastoral agents as psychologists. Have you considered the possibility of including or deepening training?
For about a century, we have been thinking that psychological and spiritual problems can be solved with chemical products, in particular with “anxiolytics.” This is an illusion because such “cures” amplify dependency and make the person more fragile. Sharing the word, offering the moment for the person to tell his personal story, his restlessness, his desire: this is the way to pass from anguish to a new moral strength, from death to life. We do not yet know enough about the charisms we have, with our capacities to encounter, to look, to listen, to smile, to support, or to encourage.
The key to this problem is twofold: we must keep open the space and time to meet, and we must reopen the path of contemplation to what makes us happy: The Creation of God and the tenderness of Jesus who always remains “close” to every man, woman, child, and elderly person.
We have shared six work meetings — dialogue and reflection — and in each meeting, each member of the group has written and enriched each of the chapters. It has been an experience of dialogue, a “logos” that was built together, listening to each other.
What can the Church, and the faith experience in general, contribute to a person suffering from a mental health disorder?
Before the development of clinical psychology and psychotherapy, priests were in some way practicing psychologists, often without knowing it. The invitation to prayer, confession, and spiritual direction have for centuries offered support to many people. One could say that confidential dialogue with a priest has, today as yesterday, a healing and liberating dimension. When we can speak and feel that we are really listened to, we are better off. With the decrease of this type of spiritual accompaniment, one can feel more the loneliness and the weight of existential questions: Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why do I have to suffer?
In a paradoxical way, secularization has amplified the themes of the human condition, of the beginning and end of life, of the possibility of loving, of giving love, and of being loved. … The theme of God and of the other ….
It seems evident that it is not possible to assume the responsibility of a pastoral agent without a good formation in this type of field of knowledge. It is the first condition to be able to listen, analyze, give advice and accompany (without falling oneself in front of the inner pain of the other person).
What can the Church offer that’s distinct?
The Church, first of all, can offer a presence and an understanding. It does not have the solution to an anguish or to an interior and secret suffering. With the grace of God-Father and the understanding of Jesus-Brother, the members of the Church, with the talents that each person has, can be present, close to people, offering a listening space, consideration, respect, love… Always with the necessary distance and attention, just as the Good Samaritan did in the Gospel and as the last encyclical of Pope Francis, “Fratelli tutti,” reminds us.
Knowing that a person is close can change the life of a lonely or depressed person. This must be linked to the complementarity between physicians — psychotherapists, psychiatrists … — and friends, family members, or members of a Christian community. The physician has an understanding that comes from his knowledge and experience: the friend or pastor has a consideration that inspires the heart. “Psyche” and “Heart” are two dimensions of the same human being, the human being who suffers but needs consideration and tenderness. The complex situation of the pandemic clearly shows that we are beings with a fragile body, a very sensitive “mind,” a heart that waits for the other, and a “breath” that needs trust. Trust means With-Trust, that is, believe-with-you.