Teaching Our Faith — Science, faith and mental health

This series of teaching editorials focuses on the relationship between faith and science.

Over the past several decades, scientists have made incredible progress in understanding mental illness and developing treatments to effectively limit symptoms that can often be debilitating for many people.

Advancements in imaging technologies have increased our understanding of changes in neurological structures for people who suffer from different types of mental illness. Tests have increased our scientific understanding of the role of neurochemicals and hormones in the presentation of acute and chronic psychiatric symptoms as well as the long-term effects of stress on the entire body.

Long-term studies have consistently demonstrated that treating mental illnesses with a combination of psychotherapy and medications have produced significant improvement in relief of psychiatric symptoms and resulted in significant improvements in patients’ daily functioning as well as their overall quality of life.

But even with these impressive advances in the science of understanding and treating mental illness, some disturbing trends in mental health persist across America.

Incidents of depression and anxiety are rising all over our country, especially with our teen and young adult populations. Suicide rates have increased to alarming levels, and the occurrence of self-harming behavior among middle school and high school students has been increasing for many years.

Governmental and professional organizations — including the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association — have studied these trends and have offered trainings to practitioners to better assess and treat people who are struggling with thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

But even with greater awareness of depression, anxiety and suicidality on the part of mental health practitioners, these areas of mental health continue to increase at unprecedented rates.

While modern technology has opened our eyes to the inner workings of the human brain, it still has limited access to a more fundamental part of the human experience, what we often refer to as the mind.

The human mind is where we interpret what is going on around us and inside us. The mind is where we try to understand our life circumstances and interpret our emotions. It is in the mind that we experience the depths of despair and the resiliency that comes with hope.

Hope is not issued with every critical situation; in fact, hope does not exist within a crisis. Hope is a resolution to our crisis that we see at some point in the future and outside of the crisis in which we find ourselves. It is the force that pulls us forward through the crisis when we do not have the strength to move forward on our own.

We cannot simply hope our difficulties away, but in the middle of the most severe circumstances we can recognize a hope existing in the future and giving us the courage and strength to face our difficulties and heal our deepest wounds that science cannot reach.

Faith is a central source of hope in our lives. Hope comes with the belief in a power greater than ourselves who can strengthen and guide us in our times of despair.

Hope comes from a belief in an omnipotent being who can heal us in ways that we could not have imagined on our own.

Hope comes from a belief in a God who loves us and walks with us on a path to healing that we don’t comprehend.

Faith allows us to surrender the illusion of control that we often apply to the crises of our lives and surrender ourselves to possibilities that may be beyond our widest and wildest imaginations.

In his book “Confessions,” St. Augustine praises the incomprehensible power of God when he says “You who do more than we could ask or think.”

Faith does not replace science but works in unison with it. Faith picks up where science ends and carries us forward to the hope that exists in front of us. Faith is not only a comfort but a source of strength to move us forward when times are difficult to a place of healing and peace that can be abiding.

The relationship between science and faith is as strong as ever. That relationship will need to be a potent force if we are going to combat the mental health challenges that are mounting in our American society.

Dr. Jim Shields is a clinical psychologist in private practice and a member of the deacon formation class of 2020.

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