By Fr. Jose Parappully, SDB
Mental wellbeing of priests and religious in todays’ socio-cultural and ecclesial context is a vast area to explore. In this brief article I make a few general statements and then focus on some steps we can take to enhance mental wellbeing and reduce the potential for mental illness. I avoid psychological jargon as far as possible, and use language that any reader can understand.
Priests and religious as a group enjoy some of the most significant contributors to mental health and well-being. Despite this, not a few of them suffer from various mental disorders. Many need increasing support in these stressful times to live healthier lives.
Mental health is not just absence of mental illness. It is a state of holistic wellbeing, in which the mind, body and spirit function harmoniously and enable a person to live joyfully and productively, finding meaning, purpose and satisfaction in life. It is a state that enables one to thrive, to flourish, to live life to the full.
This life to the full is characterised especially by healthy interpersonal relationships, undistorted cognitive processing (perception, interpretation, judgment etc.), balance between dependence and independence, feeling of competence and confidence, playfulness and joy, a sense of contentment, capacity to adapt, to change, and character virtues like love, hope, altruism, compassion, sensitivity, capacity to endure adversity, loss and suffering without being unduly distressed or disturbed, and resilience, that is, the capacity to bounce back from setbacks.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (WHO, 2013). If we look carefully at this definition, mental health can co-exist with mental illness. Even those who suffer from the illness can still realise the goals of mental health, even if not as fully as he or she would be able to if the illness were absent. Among famous persons who accomplished much despite their mental illness are Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gogh, Winston Churchill and Virginia Woolf, to mention a few.
What contributes to mental health?
A Supportive Environment
Since the discovery a few years ago that the genes in the human body are far fewer than thought until then, the role of the environment in wellbeing is given more and more importance. It is not genetics that really matter but the environment. When environments are characterised by tension and conflict, lack of support and frustrating in terms of ministerial fulfilment, these take a heavy toll on mental health of priests and religious. These lead to ‘burnout’.
Burnout is the end result of a process in which highly motivated and committed individuals lose their spirit. Herbert J. Freudenberger, who introduced the term to scientific literature, defined it as “a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationships that failed to produce the expected reward.”
What contributes most to burnout is an unfriendly and frustrating community and ministerial environment.
Christina Maslach, the University of California at Berkeley social psychologist who has done extensive research on it, described burnout as “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind.” Priests and religious fit into this category of people and so are vulnerable to burnout.
What contributes most to burnout is an unfriendly and frustrating community and ministerial environment which prevents passionate and enthusiastic priests and religious functioning at their optimum level by stifling initiative and creativity. This leads to a feeling of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment and increased frustration and resentment which affect mental health and wellbeing.
Stress is related to burnout but it is different from it. Stresses of life lie at the root of mental illness; though genetic dispositions also contribute. For example, one may have a genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia. However, whether that potential will be actualised or not depends on the level of stress one might experience.
Levels of stress among priests and religious has risen considerably. Speaking of priests, Eugene Kennedy wrote they “are subject not only to pressures from the structures of the organised Church but from the irresistible dynamics of social change that play as fiercely on them as the noonday sun”(Kennedy, 2000). Each day they feel “the strain of their high-demand, low-reward style of life.” Fears and anxieties arising from current milieu of false allegations of sexual abuse and their consequences add to this daily strain.
Retirement from active ministry too can be very stressful for priests and religious. They now have much time on their hands, and may not know how to utilise it, or they may not be given or find opportunities to use them well. This can gradually erode meaningfulness and contentment, leading to loneliness and even depression and unhealthy ways to cope with them.
It is in the context of potential for burnout and increased stress that I suggest some measures to promote mental health and wellbeing.
Mental health is supported and enhanced through healthy relationships. Neuro-scientists tell us that we are hardwired for relationships. When these are missing we become vulnerable to mental illness.
Good relationships have been found to enhance the quality of life, and promote health and happiness. These strengthen resilience, improve brain functioning and inoculate against mental and physical illness. The conclusion of The Harvard Study of Adult Development, perhaps the most famous and the longest running longitudinal study (begun in 1938), states this categorically: “The good life is dependent on good relationships.”
According to the philosopher Epicurus, one of the most vital contributors to health and happiness are our friends. This idea is today supported by much research. The support that friends provide makes a significant contribution to mental health. Pope Benedict of happy memory observed that “It is through our friendships that we grow and develop as humans.” When we are most in need, those who really stand by us are our friends.
Unfortunately, seminary training and religious formation have not promoted friendship, rather it has been seen as a danger to one’s vocation. Many priests and religious are bereft of the support of friends both during active ministry and in retirement.
Each day priests and religious feel “the strain of their high-demand, low-reward style of life.”
Since many priests live isolated in their presbyteries, having a support group of priest-peers with whom they can share their joys and griefs, as well as relax and have fun tougher, is a great help to maintaining mental health.
The danger today is that the lure of social media might seduce us to focus on “Facebook Friends” rather than cultivate real life friends.
When we focus on enhancing mental health, what psychologist Roger Walsh (2011) calls “therapeutic lifestyles” really matter. These include: exercise, nutrition and diet, time in nature, recreation, religious or spiritual involvement, and service to others. Unhealthy lifestyle (neglect of these therapeutic lifestyles), contribute to multiple psychopathologies, or forms of mental illness. Even a minor change in these lifestyle factors can bring about major changes in mental and physical health.
Exercise is especially significant in protecting from, coping with, recovering from, mental illness, especially depression. Exercise protects and nourishes the brain and the neural networks and reduces the risk of neurodegenerative disorders and cognitive impairments. It helps our body produce endorphins — the neurotransmitters in our brain that make us feel good.
Taking a few minutes each day to engage in exercise such as yoga, qigong, tai-chi, dance, simple aerobics and even just walking help stimulate and strengthen the immune system and protect and nourish mind.
Recreational activities such as games and esthetic interests such as art, music and dance also contribute significantly to mental health. These have been found to ward off and help recover especially from depression.
Time Spent in Nature
Time spent in nature is one of our most vital health resources. It can promote improved cognitive functioning and overall well-being. It helps to ward off negative thoughts and anxiety. Quiet spaces in nature can still the disquiet within us. Gardening is one excellent way of being with nature.
The current explosion of multimedia flooding us with constant online stimuli, as we sit for long hours in front of radiation-emitting electronic devices, has a very negative impact on the brain and affect our mental wellbeing, resulting in what psychologist Roger Walsh calls “technopathologies.”
A large number of studies indicate the value of diet for mental health. Fish, vegetarian, fruit and nut and whole wheat diets can prevent or ameliorate psychopathologies across the life span. Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin B12 found in these foods have an impact on brain chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions, reduce incidence of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and depression. Fatty junk food, on the other hand, we all know, is hostile to physical and mental health. But we may be reluctant to give it up.
These therapeutic life patterns described above are very effective means for promoting mental health and wellbeing.
However, what matters more than these for us priests and religious is authentic living, that is, a life style that respects our identity and commitments as priests and religious. Disparity between what we publicly profess and how we live in private is a roadmap for stress, which we know is at the root of most illnesses – both mental and physical. Hence a clear understanding of what a priestly or religious identify means and espousing a lifestyle that respects it is essential.
Finding meaningfulness in life is a powerful contributor to mental health. Maintaining meaning in our priestly and religious vocation and ministry is essential. When we experience setbacks and find ourselves in non-congenial environments it is easy to lose this meaning. Active involvement in meaningful ministry is a great help to find meaning and purpose in life.
Reaching out in Compassion
Research has found that reaching out to others in selfless service, engaging in acts of kindness and compassion, enhances personal wellbeing. The positive emotions that result from this boost our immune system and consequently enhance our mental and physical wellbeing.
Priestly and religious ministry is one of the most enriching ways of reaching out to help others. Hence, engaging in our ministry meaningfully, with sensitivity and compassion, enhances our mental health.
Religious and Spiritual Practices
Religious and spiritual practices, particularly prayer and meditation, have been found to be mental health enhancers. These sooth fear and anxiety, reduce depression, dissolve anger. Meditation enables us to remain calm and peaceful not only when we engage in it, but throughout the day. The overall effect is increase in our emotional wellbeing and overall life satisfaction.
Priests and religious are by their very vocation called to be experts in this area. Faithfulness to prayer and meditation and mindful celebration of the Sacraments, is good not only for the soul, but also for the mind and the body.
Coping with Mental Illness
Despite our best efforts to stay healthy, mental illness can strike us, because genetics also cause it. If we are afflicted, a certain acceptance of the reality and taking the necessary measures that help us cope, if not recover, is important. Some of us priests and religious are very reluctant to visit a mental health professional. This has to change.
Some suffering – including that is caused by mental illness – can be meaningful, potentially transformative, and even redemptive.
We are familiar with the term “wounded healers.” This concept provides hope and optimism. Even if we have been afflicted with mental illness, our own suffering can evoke in us empathy and compassion for fellow sufferers and can even become channels of healing and happiness to them.
What comes down from all that has been presented above is that in most cases when we live our priestly and religious life with authenticity and exercise our ministry with passion and enthusiasm, and adopt a therapeutic lifestyle we have enough resources to live a healthy mental life. At the same time, there are also factors beyond our control that can cause in us mental illness. Then we have to take the necessary steps to cope with it.
(For more information on Mental Health and Wellbeing, please access my blogposts under “Psyche & Soul” at: http:sumedhabani.blogspot.com)
Kennedy, E. (2000). Saving Fr. Ryan: Understanding the good priest. National Catholic Reporter, March 31
Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), 579-592. World Health Organization (2013). Mental health action plan 2013-2020. Geneva: Author
Jose Parappully, a Salesian priest, has over 25 years of experience as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. He is founder-director of Bosco Psychological Services, New Delhi and Sumedha Centre for Psychospiritual Wellbeing at Jharmari, Punjab. He was the founder-president of the Conference of Catholic Psychologists of India and currently president of the Salesian Psychological Association, South Asia.