June 19, 2020

Catholic mental health clinicians see reasons for hope in pandemic challenges

Alice Claus prays the rosary at St. Kevin Church in the Flushing section of the New York City borough of Queens on May 26, the first day the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., permitted its churches to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Catholic mental health clinicians in Indianapolis spoke recently with The Criterion about the psychological and emotional challenges the pandemic has caused for many people.  (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Alice Claus prays the rosary at St. Kevin Church in the Flushing section of the New York City borough of Queens on May 26, the first day the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., permitted its churches to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Catholic mental health clinicians in Indianapolis spoke recently with The Criterion about the psychological and emotional challenges the pandemic has caused for many people. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

By Sean Galllagher

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 2 million people across the country have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 110,000 have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in the U.S. earlier this year.

In addition to its physical toll, the pandemic has also negatively affected the mental health of many people, according to both the Indiana State Department of Health and such national organizations as the Well Being Trust.

In a report released earlier this month, the Oakland, Calif.-based health advocacy organization estimated that the pandemic, with its resulting economic hardships and emotional and psychological challenges, could bring about more deaths by suicide and abuse or misuse of drugs (which it describes as “death by despair”) than those who die by the virus itself.

Three mental health clinicians who work out of a Catholic understanding of the human person recently spoke with The Criterion about how the pandemic and the gradual reopening of society poses psychological and emotional challenges for many people. At the same time, they pointed to signs of hope that can be gained by the wisdom of the Catholic faith and its time-tested spiritual treasures.

John Cadwallader, Jonathan Chamblee and Pauline Kattady offer their Catholic-informed therapy through Central Psychological Services in Indianapolis. (Related story: Joining the Catholic faith with mental health therapy offers added help to clients)

‘A reminder of who God is’

For many, the pandemic has been marked by a sharp separation from other people. This continues to be the case for older people and those with complicating health conditions.

Cadwallader said such social distancing can sometimes bring to the surface for some people psychological and emotional challenges that might have been more hidden in the past.

“With the separation and silence, a lot of things that are in our heads and in our hearts are rising up in some ways,” he said. “Some of that has

been the realization that we’re not ultimately in control. We’re actually utterly dependent upon God at all times.

“That’s something which is always true. It’s a reminder of who God is and what we are not. We have to trust in his providence to be able to, not just survive this pandemic, but actually to be able to thrive. There’s actually a lot of goodness coming out of this for a lot of people.”

Such social separation has been an aspect of Catholic spirituality for more than 1,500 years, noted Chamblee. He pointed to monks who lived in deserts in Egypt and the Middle East starting in the late third century.

Living apart from the rest of society “created for them a time for personal growth,” Chamblee said. So, he said, the separation caused by the pandemic “can be an opportunity for us to recognize certain strengths and weaknesses within ourselves that we can capitalize on and work through.”

Both positive and painful

At the same time, the pandemic has been a time in which many people have been forced to spend much more time with their family than they’ve been used to when parents and children would go from their home to work, school or other activities.

“There’s a lot more intimacy because of the withdrawal from society,” Cadwallader said. “In some ways, it’s been pretty positive, but in other ways, it’s honestly been pretty painful. I think there’s still a deeper opportunity for us to love more authentically.”

Kattady noted that, even with the restrictions of the pandemic, family members can isolate themselves in unhealthy ways from each other.

“You can have many distractions within the home, such as streaming services,” she said. “It can be tempting. We have the opportunity to choose to invest time with each other in families. I feel I’m empathizing even more with people now. It’s an opportunity for them to invest in that right now.”

Kattady also spoke about the many people who have had friends and loved ones die during the pandemic and how that limited the ways in which they would ordinarily grieve such a loss. Funeral Masses were suspended. Only a limited number of people could participate in graveside services.

“It really does feel like a bad dream to a lot of people,” she said. “Clinically and psychologically, it’s so important for us to grieve. As humans, we’re required to grieve in order to heal.”

That’s where bringing in an element of faith has been helpful to her clients who are believers.

“God is close to us, especially in times of sorrow,” Kattady said. “That’s something to remind ourselves of consistently. Grief is hard.”

Growing the most in hard times

Chamblee spoke about the challenges in the pandemic for people who struggle with addictions, speculating that there might be “a high level of relapse among people” over the past few months.

“Part of what drives an addiction is internal distress,” he said. “The addiction is, among other things, an attempt at a coping mechanism for that. If someone is feeling stress and a sense of uncertainty from the lockdown, they’re going to seek comfort.”

He encouraged people who might have experienced relapse recently to not give up hope for a new beginning.

“Just because you’ve relapsed doesn’t mean you can’t stop. Relapse doesn’t mean, ‘I relapsed anyway. I may as well continue,’ ” Chamblee said. “No, you can pull yourself back. You can seek God’s grace of repentance in order to get yourself back on track. And it may require a person being more intentional about it and seeking help.”

Whatever challenges the pandemic may be causing in people’s lives, Cadwallader suggested that the Catholic approach to understanding the meaning of suffering can be especially helpful for people seeking help in therapy.

“We as Catholic clinicians see that there is redemption in suffering,” he said. “Secular therapists and psychologists would see caring for the person that suffering has taken benevolence away. Then we’re actually trying to do something that we can’t do, which is to take away God’s will. Some of the hardest times are the times in which we grow the most.”
 

(For more information about Central Psychological Services, visit www.centralpsychservices.com.)

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