This article appears in the February 2004 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

Depression is a 'Spiritual Trial'

Pope John Paul II and Others

Although clinical depression is a serious illness that requires medical treatment, religious assistance can play a key role in recovery, speakers said at the XVIII International conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers last November. Pope John Paul told participants at the conference that depression could often be a spiritual trial, and those suffering should receive special support from their priests and parish communities. `The illness frequently is accompanied by-an existential and spiritual crisis that causes one to no longer see the value of living; he told the conference.

Under the presidency of Cardinal Javier Barragan, cardinals and bishops, together with specialists from the various disciplines from sixty two countries, had attended. They focused on the data and observations of the WHO, the suicidal crisis and the main points of faith on which special emphasis should be based. Their main conclusions were that:-

Dr. Bengt Safsten from the Uppsala University Hospital said WHO estimates one million people will commit suicide this year and the rate is 60% higher than it was 45 years ago.

Cardinal Jose Martins illustrated expressions of depression and of an even stronger faith found in the psalms. The text of several of them could be read as an expression of a depressive state, with symptoms of sadness, lack of interest, diminished capacity for work, sleep disturbances, loss of weight, sense of guilt, desire to cry and suicidal thoughts. He quoted Psalm 55 `my heart pounds within me; death terrors fall upon me. Fear and trembling overwhelm me; shuddering sweeps over me; He cited the distressed author of Psalm 102 who wrote `I am withered and dried up like grass, too wasted, to eat my food'.

Dr. Cervera Enguix, professor of medicine at the University of Navarra, Spain, told the conference that clinical depression is not simply an emotional state of unhappiness or sadness in reaction to difficult situations and events in life. Unlike normal sadness it is not transitory; the patient feels paralysed and loses hope of ever feeling any better. But it is not simply an emotional or spiritual imbalance and often includes biological or chemical imbalances, he said. But he agreed that, while medical treatment was essential, spiritual and family support are necessary.

Cardinal Barragan summarised the position by stating that the Vatican was discussing the treatment and pastoral care of clinically depressed patients because the illness was striking an increasing number of people around the world. `They say depression is the principal killer of our age, and I do not think we should be surprised' he maintained. `Unfortunately the post-modern is empty of values, founded on well-being and pleasure, in which economic profit counts as the supreme goal'. For all its progress, he said, modern culture has not been able to do away with death. The fact that the Christian faith faces the meaning of life and death and offers transcendent answers means it has also much to offer about the topic of depression.

Acknowledgements for this paper are due to Tim Conroy, Catholic Times, November 23 2003