Prayer vs. therapy: which one do you need?

It can be hard to know because mental health and spirituality so are closely intertwined. Here, a psychologist untangles the confusion.

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Tragic stories about suicide pop up from time to time in the news. A woman does the unthinkable to her children, and ends up taking her own life. Everyone is in shock. They can’t believe she would do that to her own kids. They were always so well-dressed and taken care of. Church every Sunday. A quiet, nice neighbor—everyone seemed so happy.

And yet, one day she turned on the gas on the stove.

“It’s the work of the devil!” people say.

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Or another story: a young suffering woman left her home and never came back. She didn’t say a word to anyone. Just left her sleeping child and walked out. A week earlier, she had posted a picture of her newborn on Facebook, happy as could be. She planned the christening and bought the clothes. “What happened to her? What caused her to snap like that?!”

Behind those sensational headlines lies a deep, psychological disorder. All the bigger because it often is misunderstood by the person experiencing it.

When a Catholic patient tells me that he doesn’t believe in psychotherapy, I tell them that it is not about faith, but ability.

What did they do wrong?

The suffering mother didn’t ask for help. She was ashamed. She was afraid of herself because her thoughts seemed strange. She saw things others did not see. She heard voices, but others didn’t react to them. Or she stopped caring about herself, no longer saw her friends, explaining that she was too tired. Her baby cried all not long, what was not to believe about her story?

In between the sleeplessness and fatigue, something disturbing seeped in. Strange and unwanted memories, dangerous thoughts. Something inside was telling her to leave her home as a form of punishment.

“Yes, that is her cross, and she has to bear it. She doesn’t deserve happiness or her baby. She has to punish herself.”

A priest or spiritual advisor may play an important role in moral support, but he does not replace a doctor.

Many Catholics are convinced they have problems with their faith, and not with their mental health. I blow up easily, lose my temper with my children. I feel ashamed and run to confession; I repent, and I promise to try harder, but it happens again. I start beating myself up. Instead of trying to understanding what I might be going through, I reject and punish myself: I deprive myself of everything, I don’t buy anything new, I don’t go out with friends. But it doesn’t help. Have I lost my way? I’m weak because I turned away from God. I’m in bed crying when I should be trying to be more holy.

The difference between spiritual & psychological problems

That line of thinking is dangerous. They don’t believe that they need medical help. There is no need for a diagnosis. Fear and shame of going to a psychiatrist are still widespread. And if the prayers don’t help, and the problems are not understood and shocking, then maybe an exorcist will help?

A priest or spiritual advisor may play an important role in moral support, but he does not replace a doctor. Of course, a confession has an element of therapy. It is a form of cleansing admission that allows relieving one’s feelings. But it often is a short-term solution, because the problems come back–difficulties accumulate and the pain doesn’t diminish.

MORE TO READ: When God seems absent: strategies for coping with depression

A confession is an act of faith; therapy is working on yourself, and it is always a process. Understanding why, for example, I am terrified by my husband’s tenderness. Why I love possessively, or why I am so honest that it seems almost aggressive towards people close to me.

It’s important to differentiate between spiritual and psychological problems. Instead of feeling constant guilt, being in pain, and unsuccessfully fighting with yourself, it’s crucial to admit that your problem is not a spiritual but a psychological one. You are not lost, you are sick. You do not have a faith crisis, but you do have a mental health problem.

The sin of gluttony may prove to be bulimia, the sin of laziness could be depression, and vanity could be a neurotic disorder. Having repetitive “impure thoughts” is sometimes diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Does a Catholic need a psychiatrist or psychologist?

Of course they do! Just like anyone else who’s no longer able to deal, and feels that his or her feelings and thoughts could pose a risk to herself or her loved ones. Whenever he or she hears the question, “So, what’s going on with you?” they may not understand the concern. After all, nothing is going on; it’s a private thing. It’s my cross, and I will bear it, somehow.

When your tooth hurts, you shouldn’t look for a pair of pliers; you should go to a dentist. When we retreat from everyday life and we feel sad and hopeless without reason, when we have suicidal thoughts, obsessions, behaviors calling the attention of others, we should go to a doctor.

A good psychiatrist does not fight the patient’s faith.

A psychiatrist is not a god; we don’t need to believe in him to use his medical knowledge. Neurosis or mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, but denying the knowledge and resources of the psychiatry field is. A doctor won’t surprised, he will understand. His job is to find out what is happening to you and why.

A good Catholic does not have to choose between spiritual and medical help. Religious and therapeutic practices do not have to compete or fight. They can complement each other. It is good to tell your confessor about your treatment. Such information affects the confession, helps to foster a new understanding of guilt, a guilty conscience, regret, and punishment for what you may have done.

A good psychiatrist does not fight the patient’s faith. He knows that for him it is a fundamental value, and the moral support of a priest or a prayer group helps. The patient and his loved ones do not feel stigmatized, excluded, or worse. Sometimes mental disorders contain elements of a religious nature and there may be a need for a direct conversation between the doctors and the patient’s priest.

The best advice for people of faith who are experiencing psychological distress? Pray and see a doctor!

Zyta Rudzka
Zyta Rudzka
Zyta graduated from the Academy of Catholic Theology with a psychology degree. She was winner of the Gdynia Drama Prize for her drama, “Cold Buffet.” The television version of her play, “The Sugar Bra,” won a gold medal at the prestigious Worldfest Independent Film Festival in Houston. Her works have been translated into German, Russian, English, Croatian, Italian, Czech, French, and Japanese.

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