By Eileen Mozinski Schmidt
Aaron Kheriaty once had a patient who had recovered from both breast cancer and depression.
Because the negative reactions toward the mental illness were so strong, the woman later told her therapist that if she had to go through one of the two again she would prefer cancer.
Even as awareness of the importance of mental health care grows, the illnesses within its realm remain a source of unease for many.
“There will always be some level of discomfort with it,” Kheriaty said. “Mental illness strikes at us in ways that are pretty frightening to people.”
But Kheriaty, the director of residency training and medical education in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, also sees promise in the expanding conversation and public awareness regarding mental illness.
He believes the Catholic Church can aide in a person’s recovery and recently authored a book — The Catholic Guide to Depression — to serve as a practical guide for Catholics dealing with that form of mental illness.
In an interview with The Catholic Messenger, Kheriaty said his book is aimed at individuals rather than a professional audience and seeks to build on the Catholic theme of focus on the nature of the human person.
“I thought this was a way to reach people, to tell them, ‘The Church has something to say to you,’” he said.
Kheriaty is working on a series of books integrating the Catholic faith with treatment of mental illness and said the edition on depression, published last October, was his first in the series.
It is not a treatment manual, but Kheriaty hopes it will resonate with people struggling with an illness that is sometimes misunderstood. He also seeks to draw spouses, family members, clergy and spiritual advisors into a discussion on how to work together on treating depression.
What can the Church offer?
On the broadest level, Kheriaty stressed that religion and psychology are deeply integrated.
“I really believe that. All truth comes from God,” he said, adding that his book attempts to harmonize the fields of biology, genetics, psychology, psychiatry and medical neurology.
More specifically, Kheriaty said a person suffering from depression and seeking help may feel more comfortable first approaching a priest or clergy member who is already within the depressed individual’s realm of confidence.
In addition, the sacraments in the Catholic Church can serve an important role in the recovery of body and soul, according to Kheriaty.
“(They) are a very tangible way grace is mediated to us,” he said, adding that while not a cure-all for depression, the sacraments can offer “positive healing effects” that come with “a strong sense of the presence of God.”
“Maintaining a good sacramental life is very important, especially when suffering,” he said.
Prayer can sometimes be difficult, but the sacraments offer something palpable.
Kheriaty’s book targets a market that some say is on the rise. The call for mental health treatment that incorporates religious beliefs is steadily increasing, according to Allison Ricciardi, founder of CatholicTherapists.com.
The site is a network for Catholic therapists around the country, along with a few in Canada.
Ricciardi told The Messenger she launched the site about 12 years ago after an appearance as a guest on the former Abundant Life show on EWTN. Following the interview, Ricciardi received scores of calls from people around the country looking for therapists in their area who could counsel from a Catholic perspective.
Therapists in the network, which Ricciardi said is now about 300 strong, are screened to ensure they agree with Church teachings.
“We are being up front about who we are,” she said. “We believe the Church teaches what it does because it knows what is best for the human person.”
The goal is not to preach to patients, but to ensure their treatment does not undermine their values, according to Ricciardi.
She said patients should not be afraid to seek out therapists in her network, even if they have not followed Church teaching in their own lives. Therapists linked with CatholicTherapists.com do not affirm choices that are not in line with Church doctrine, but Ricciardi said they will not pass judgment either.
“We’re meeting people where they’re at,” she said.
At the Corridor Christian Counseling Center in North Liberty, Iowa, marriage and family therapist Esther Johnson takes a broad approach when incorporating faith into a patient’s treatment.
“For my clients, around 30 to 40 percent are integrating” their religious beliefs, she said. “Many use their faith as a source of wisdom and strength, sometimes even hope.”
Johnson, MS, LMFT, leaves the choice of whether to incorporate faith into treatment up to the individual.
Her Christian clients turn most often to the Bible, and Johnson, who also is Christian, will make some suggestions of Scripture passages.
For Buddhist and Muslim clients, whose specific beliefs and teaching are not as familiar to Johnson, she will ask them to draw in elements of their faith that may provide help.
“I will ask, ‘Is this something you can draw strength from?’”
She will explain some teachings in her own religious background as well, but stressed that it is important to not try to convert someone dealing with mental illness.
Johnson, Ricciardi and Kheriaty all said Catholics can help their family, friends and fellow parishioners by committing to learning more about mental illness, from the symptoms to forms of treatment.
Simply being present to someone who is suffering is one of the best forms of compassion, Ricciardi said.
For his part, Kheriaty stressed his book is just one piece of the conversation.
“There is a lot of work to be done. My book is not the last word on the subject,” he said.
The Diocese of Davenport’s Catholic Charities recently hosted a webinar on mental health that is available to Catholics in the diocese. For more information, contact Kent Ferris, diocesan director of social action and of Catholic Charities at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Medication and mental illness
Some Catholic therapists such as Allison Ricciardi are raising concerns about how medication is being used in the field of mental health.
Ricciardi believes meds are being used much too frequently, saying in many cases they only serve to take the edge off symptoms, but insurance companies are much quicker to cover medication than other forms of treatment. Full treatment often requires more than medication, she said.
Aaron Kheriaty agreed, saying the rise in the use of prescription medication is a concern. “Unfortunately, a lot of psychiatry is headed the medical management direction,” he said.
A recent CBS News investigation found deaths for accidental overdoses among veterans is on the rise. The number of patients treated by the Veterans Administration is up 29 percent, but narcotics prescriptions are up 259 percent, according to the report, released last month.
But Kheriaty stressed that medication often plays a critical role in successful treatment. He believes it is important to avoid extremes in over and under-prescribing of medication.
“I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Kheriaty said.