Saint Mary’s “Theology on Fire” series highlights Catholicism aiding mental illness

Saint Mary’s College hosted Dr. Lorraine V. Cuddeback on September 17th for an intellectual and spiritual talk about the theological insights into depression as a part of their “Theology on Fire” series. Cuddeback is a Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She specializes in social ethics, bringing the Catholic Social Tradition into dialogue with theologies of disability. Her current research explores community practices of inclusion and helps to ensure that all members of the Body of Christ can feel that they belong.

Cuddeback began by explaining that depression is not rare. About 10 percent of all people  and 25-30 percent of college students suffer from depression. This means that one out of four people, on the low end, suffer from depression. Cuddeback stated that she believed these percentages are skewed, as they only represent those who seek treatment and many of those who suffer from depression do not seek treatment.  

Depression is not testable; it is all based on self-reporting. The causes of depression are still under research.  To be diagnosed with depression, a person must have at least five symptoms and it must affect one’s everyday life activities, such as going to school or eating lunch. Thoughts of suicide cross this diagnostic threshold immediately.

There is a current stigma that depression is just feeling down and in someone’s head, which is not true. There is a difference between feeling down and experiencing clinical depression. Mental illness operates on a spectrum. There is a real biological aspect of depression. “There is an impression that because depression is a mental illness then you can just will yourself not to be sad. Just think about it and move on. … No one tells you to get over strep throat.” Cuddeback stated.

“We don’t talk about depression and suicide anywhere close to as often as we talk about breast cancer and supporting breast cancer research.” stated Cuddeback. 44,193 people died from suicide in 2016 compared to the 41,070 who will potentially pass away from breast cancer this year. Cuddeback made clear that she did not bring up breast cancer to put it down by any means, but rather to show how little attention is focused on depression and depression awareness.

The second half of the discussion explored a theological perspective on depression.  Cuddeback focused on two writings: a short section from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a letter from Pope Saint John Paul II.

The only mention of mental health in the Catechism focuses on suicide. Suicide is contrary to the moral law, but does not necessarily condemn one to hell. The Church prays for those who have taken their own lives.

The letter from Pope Saint John Paul II is to the Pontifical Council for Health and Pastoral Care in response to a conference about mental health that was held at the Vatican. He explains how mental health can impact one’s relationship with God. He says that it is important to create structures for those suffering from mental illness and for those who help treat mental health issues.

The third portion of the discussion focused on what we can do. The relationship between the spirit and the body matters, and depression affects both. One cannot just focus on the body and hope to get better.

Cuddeback pointed to the Psalms as great resources on mercy and suffering. “God does not want us to suffer, but God is with us when we are suffering,” said Cuddeback. During the end of the discussion, Marcia Webbi was quoted saying, “if God is a God of those who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized, we must assume also that God is a God of persons with mental illness.” If you hate yourself, then God is calling you to love yourself.  After the presenter’s discussion, the audience broke into small group discussions and a large open group discussion.

Junior Abbey Parsons left expressing thoughts that she had learned that the Catholic Church had a view on mental health and took away the fact “that depression and mental illness, in general, are commonly known, but not thought about and commonly talked about.”

Junior Katie Shaffer was “pleased to learn that [the Catholic Church] teaches mercy for people with depression and people who commit suicide.” She hopes to take away “how you can use theology and depression. I didn’t think that they went together beforehand, but we learned about some cool resources that you can use to help those who are suffering from depression and anxiety.”

Junior Angela Bozik liked the connection between the talk and real life. When asked what she was going to take away from this talk, she said that “depression is a big issue, but there is not a lot of emphasis on it. Knowing how the Church views it, we can be there for people more and try to increase knowledge of it.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month and October is National Depression Education and Awareness Month. October 11th is National Depression Screening Day.

Hannah Wozniak is a psychology major with a minor in English writing living in Le Mans Hall. She enjoys cooking, traveling, and star-gazing. You can contact her at