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Psychology That Is True to Science, True to God

Gladys Sweeney on What Therapy Can Do for Troubled Believers

WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 14, 2005 (Zenit) - A psychology rooted in the Catholic understanding of the human person is not only true to science, but true to God.

So says Gladys Sweeney, dean of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, which aims to provide a bridge between science and faith.

Sweeney shared with us how psychological sciences are at the service of the Church if they free individuals to become better Christians and benefit from a sacramental life.

Q: What are some solutions for Catholics who suffer from depression or mental illness?

Sweeney: Oftentimes depression or other forms of mental illness constitute an obstacle to free will. Effective psychological treatment is very helpful, because the treatment essentially seeks to free the person not only to see the "good" more realistically, but also to be able to choose the "good."

Traditionally there has been mutual distrust between the psychological sciences and faithful Catholics. Psychology has tended to see faith as superstitious behavior, and religious people have tended to see psychology as science unnecessary to them. Sufficient faith should take care of all the problems, whatever they might be.

Neither position reflects the truth. A psychology rooted in the Catholic understanding of the human person is not only true to science, but true to God. The psychological sciences have much to offer a person whose free will is impaired.

For example, let's take the case of somebody suffering from extreme scruples. He might in fact be suffering from "obsessive compulsive neurosis." This psychological disorder can become so severe if not properly treated as to impair the person from functioning normally.

Good, faithful Catholics might in fact stop going to confession to avoid feeling that they have invalid confessions for having forgotten to confess "all sins." They might in fact stop going to Communion for fear that they may be receiving Our Lord unworthily. This disorder is easily diagnosed and treated.

The psychological sciences are at the service of the Church. By helping this person regain normal functioning, they free him from the neurosis. But the freedom is not only a "freedom from," but also a "freedom to" -- a freedom to become a better Christian and to be able to benefit from a sacramental life.

Properly understood, then, there is no conflict between a psychology grounded in a sound anthropology and the teachings of the Church. The challenge is to find psychologists trained properly in this perspective who will respect the religious values of their patients, and will not in any way undermine them.

Q: What are the most common misunderstandings in the treatment of depression today?

Sweeney: One of the greatest misunderstandings in the treatment of depression is the notion that depression is alleviated "solely" through medication.

Although it is true that the use of antidepressants has offered tremendous relief to patients suffering from this disorder, the exclusive reliance on the pharmaceutical treatment, excluding more traditional forms of psychotherapy, is not the best treatment.

One of the most effective treatments for depression is what psychologists have named "cognitive restructuring." This treatment modality attempts to reorder emotions according to reason.

Often, in a case of depression, the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness takes control of the entire person, and the patient is not able to see reality objectively. It is as if they view the world through dark lenses. A depressed person might "interpret" a neutral event as negative, as personally offensive, when in reality it is not so.

The treatment consists of helping the depressed individuals to restructure their thinking, of aiding them to reframe their distorted negative schemas. They are trained to order the emotions according to reason and to see situations more objectively. It has proven extremely effective in helping patients with this diagnosis.

It is important to note that sometimes depressed individuals do not respond well initially to this therapy. This is often the case when the depression is severe.

In those cases, the best treatment is a combination of medication and cognitive therapy. However, medication alone is seldom a good long-term solution to the problem.

Q: How can a life in Christ -- that is, participation in the sacramental life, establishing a prayer life, getting spiritual direction -- help heal mental afflictions?

Sweeney: Participation in the sacramental life, establishing a prayer life and getting spiritual direction are all means to receive divine grace.

Christian spirituality is life in ...

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