Scientific research shows that a person who seeks to be close to God finds fullness in living and can attain greater stability, says a psychological expert and priest.
In an interview with ZENIT this week, Father Wenceslao Vial, professor of psychology and spiritual life at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, says that “faith in God is not a ‘medicine’ to avoid being sick with depression, but it can increase the resources to combat it.”
Father Vial was speaking in the wake of the recent death of the Robin Williams and his battle with depression and faith. He also discusses Hollywood pressures and what can help those suffering with depression.
The doctor further examines if a reported increase in cases of depression can be attributed not only to a lack of faith, but specifically a lack of a relationship with Jesus, as well as the roles of devotions and geographical location.
ZENIT: Could you reflect on the death of the actor Robin Williams and his battle with depression?
Fr. Vial: According to the newspapers, it seems that Robin Williams suffered from chronic depression since his youth, to which Parkinson’s was recently added: two illnesses that can cause pathological sadness, an alteration of one’s freedom and responsibility. Noted also are his experiences of loss in the family, beginning with his divorced parents. Also seen in his life, unfortunately, is the wound of alcohol and drugs.
Beyond the tragedy, I was struck by the way the news was made public. Several television channels, such as CNN and the BBC, broadcast the description of the scene, with many particulars discovered on finding his body. I thought of his family, his friends, and the added grief caused by so many useless details. I also thought of a neglected reality: there is often talk of death, it is seen in films, in television news, in novels. However, it’s always the others who die. At the entrance of the Via Appia in Rome, full of funerary monuments, there is in fact a tavern with the writing: “No one ever dies here.”
The consideration of the end of our earthly existence should be a call to our responsibility, and to have it present can help us to live life fully, so that at the same time we prepare for eternal life. The word responsibility comes from the verb to respond, to give an answer about what we have done, how we did it and why. Self-realization isn’t possible without solid references outside of ourselves, without the effort to live well. Each one must seek the meaning, which goes beyond the fleeting moment.
ZENIT: Can the increase in depression nowadays be linked to a loss of faith?
Fr. Vial: The concept of depression includes different symptoms and sicknesses also with multiple and different causes. Today, it strikes in its various forms up to 15% of the general population. There are many factors to arrive at this figure, such as the fact that today more diagnoses of depression are certainly made than in past years. The loss of responsibility, in some way correlated with a diminution of faith, could be, however, another of these factors. It is often forgotten that to respond implies the existence of someone that receives and merits an answer. This “someone” could be a friend, the family, dear persons. If their support is lacking or there is no trust or human faith in them, space is opened more easily to pathological sadness.
For a believer, faith in God is not a “medicine” to avoid being sick with depression, but it increases the resources to combat it, also because it presents to us a superior Being to whom to give an answer. Today, ‘identity’ is tormented: Many seek to extinguish the light of supernatural faith, the light that indicates we are limited and finite creatures. There are also many who extinguish the light of reason which shows us what man and woman really are and the beauty of interpersonal relationships. The family and stable matrimony seem to be a piece of A Night at the Museum [a movie in which Williams starred], and Hollywood is not altogether without responsibility, as Williams himself said. In my opinion, all these are factors of risk for depression and other psychic illnesses.
In sum, the person who seeks to be close to God finds fullness in living (the meaning of things, fulfillment, etc.) and can attain greater stability. To avoid some forms of depression, however, the believer must work with order and proportion, leaving room for rest and entertainment, when he seeks to serve others, in daily activities, in friendship and in professional work. To have faith does not mean that there cannot be personality traits that favor depression, such as perfectionism or obsessiveness. To know that God knows us better than we do ourselves helps us to overcome feelings of low self-esteem, insecurity, little tolerance of frustration, or hyper-responsibility that seeks to responds primarily to one’s identity.
ZENIT: More specifically, can depression’s increase be attributed to a lack of relationship with Jesus in people’s lives?
Fr. Vial: A life without Christ becomes more complex to understand. Jesus is the only one who fully reveals man to man, wrote Saint John Paul II. He is the only one able to open the Book of Revelation with its seven seals that, as Guardini stresses, represents the mystery of existence with its burden of pain and suffering. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a distancing of oneself from Christ can produce an increase of depressive symptoms because of the greater difficulty in accepting the meaning of so many vital situations. For instance, there are several scientific articles that show an improvement of health in relation to religious practice. Influencing this, certainly, is belonging to a group, the possibility of giving meaning, etc., but also a relationship of trust with a God who became man and who hears us. Also important is the way we live this relation of faith. God isn’t an implacable judge, but rather a Father who loves us and who created us to have us share his divine happiness in heaven. He awaits only a free response on our part.
ZENIT: What helps? Can you speak about what helps those battling depression, from a faith point of view? (i.e. regular prayer, Mass, etc.).
Fr. Vial: The Christian faith considers also the human side and the progresses of science. Therefore, the first thing to advise a person that suffers from depression would be to go to a good doctor. There are today very useful medications and psychotherapy techniques. The medicines act at the biological level, restoring the balance without changing our way of thinking. Psychotherapy is an interpersonal relation that offers specialized professional support. Usually, the best results are obtained with medicines and psychotherapy together. The cognitive techniques that seek out distorted thoughts and erroneous vital strategies are the most effective. They do not investigate so much the depth of the unconscious, but rather the conscious flux of our thoughts.
From the spiritual point of view, a person with depression – as any other person – will undoubtedly find help in prayer, in the encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist, and in Confession. This sacrament of forgiveness is particularly important for all, because in forgiving and in being forgiven an essential pillar is found of maturity and therefore of emotional balance. Hence, as Saint Thomas said, to be able to recite the Our Father, making all its affirmations one’s own, also the fifth, of forgiveness of those who offend, is key to stability.
One can always advise a person with depression to pray. However, one must not forget that the sickness itself can alter this relation of prayer, which could be seen as too heavy a burden. Nor should it be forgotten that to pray does not mean that the symptoms of depression, of feelings of guilt or anguish, will disappear. Faith can make a person say, as I have heard more than once, words such as these: “Lord, if you will it, I offer you my malaise. With you, I can live with joy even in pain.” It is a paradox, which faith and individual experience succeed in revealing. When the sickness has been graver, I have also heard it said: “If I continue to live it’s because I believe in God.” Perhaps the illness is not changed, but the attitude is in face of it.
ZENIT: Let’s speak about the connection to depression between those faithful who do practice versus those who do not. Can you reflect on the likelihood of depression for someone who claims to have a strong faith, but doesn’t practice, compared to someone who likewise has a strong faith but does?
Fr. Vial: It seems important to me to confirm that the sickness of depression has very many causes and can even be inherited. In regard to your question, you ask me if a person who he has a strong faith but doesn’t practice has a greater risk of depression than a person with faith but who also practices it. My answer would be yes, but the reasons must be well understood. A “strong faith” that isn’t practiced isn’t coherent. The vital incoherence, double lives in whatever degree, are more destabilizing of the whole person. Perhaps a person who has no faith at all has less risk of depression, a non-believer who behaves in a coherent way, than a believer who doesn’t practice his faith. The person who believes and practices, is certainly not immune to a multi-factorial sickness such as depression. However, the support he finds in other faithful and the teachings to live a happy life, help to prevent it. In the Church, for instance, a person can know with greater facility the importance of distancing himself from very many activities and situations that risk a psychic pathology, such as the use of drugs, excess alcohol, unlimited sexuality, conjugal infidelity, etc.
ZENIT: Does geographic region seem to make a difference with depression and faith and the link between the two?
Fr. Vial: There are differences regarding the frequency of depression in different geographic areas. In countries with long, cold winters and scarce daylight, more cases are seen. Moreover, the cases increase in areas in which the population suffers violence, persecution and important socio-economic limitations. However, it’s not simple to have a clear map of the situation because of the discrepancies in the classifications between countries and groups researched. Suicide, whose cause is not always depression, is easier to measure and is substantially more frequent in the countries of the North of Europe, Russia, China and Japan. It is also interesting to know that the manifestations of depression vary from one culture to another. Depressed patients of Chinese origin, for instance, complain less of sadness and refer more frequently to boredom, pains, tiredness and other physical manifestations.
However, it is to be hoped that in every country and in every culture efforts will be made, also by doctors, to foment personal responsibility, the need and the capacity to give an answer about the way of living and about life itself. In this way, probably, the incidence of depression would diminish. It would help so many persons to think of God making a movie, as a person that helps us to recite with joy that part that is ours in the great history of men. Christian faith and hope make us pray so that Robin Williams himself, with his sense of humor, may look at us from heaven and perhaps say to us: “Good morning! Smile, See that God is making your film.”