Francis is an advocate for mental health, and has opened up about his own methods for dealing with weaknesses.
Pope Francis sent a message to the second National Conference for Mental Health, promoted by the Italian Ministry of Health, which was held last weekend, praising the initiative as a step toward “fully overcom[ing] the stigma with which mental illness has often been branded.”
The Holy Father’s message emphasizes the importance of care for the whole person, saying that both the health care systems need to be strengthened, and scientific research into mental illness must increase.
Caring for others is not just a skilled job, but a real mission, which is fully realised when scientific knowledge meets the fullness of humanity and is translated into the tenderness that knows how to approach and take others to heart.
The Pope noted the particular difficulties that the mentally ill have suffered in the pandemic.
And in addition to eradicating stigma, Francis urged a “culture of community” — that it
prevails over the mentality of rejection, according to which greater care and attention is given to those who bring productive advantages to society, forgetting that those who suffer allow the irrepressible beauty of human dignity to shine forth in their wounded lives.
Pope’s care of his own mental health
In an interview earlier this year with La Nacion, the Holy Father spoke with a journalist-doctor about his own care for his mental health.
The Holy Father explained how, as a director of the Jesuit community in Argentina, “during the terrible days of the dictatorship, during which I transported people in secret to get them out of the country and thus save their lives, I had to handle situations which I didn’t know how to face. It was then that I went to see a woman—a great woman—who had helped me interpret some psychological tests for the novices. Then, for six months, I had a consultation with her once a week.”
The pope explained that this psychiatrist helped him to “orient myself regarding the way to handle the fears of that time. Imagine what it was like to transport someone hidden in your car—only covered by a blanket—and to pass through three military checkpoints in the Campo de Mayo area. It caused me enormous tension.”
But, he said, his sessions with the doctor helped him to establish habits beyond the political crisis of the time.
My treatment with the psychiatrist also helped me to orient myself and learn to manage my anxiety and avoid making decisions in a hurry. The process of making decisions is always complex. And the advice and observations she gave me were very useful. She was a very capable professional, and fundamentally, a very good person. I’m still enormously grateful to her. Her teachings are still of great use to me today.
The Holy Father said that seeking her help was not difficult for him, because on this issue, he’s “very open.”
‘Caressing your neuroses’
The journalist asked him: “You spoke to me various times about your neuroses. How conscious are you of them?”
You have to prepare a cup of maté [Argentinean tea] for your neuroses. Not only that, you have to caress them too. They’re a person’s companions throughout their entire life.
I remember once having read a book that interested me a lot and that made me laugh out loud. It’s title was ‘Be Glad You’re Neurotic’ by American psychiatrist Louis E. Bisch.
It’s something that I mentioned in the press conference I gave on the flight back from Seoul to Rome. I said, ‘I’m very attached to the habitat’ of neuroses and I added that, after reading that book, I decided to care for them. That is to say, it’s very important to know where your bones are creaky. Where and what our spiritual maladies are. Over time, you get to know your neuroses.
Answering anxiety with Bach
The journalist continued:
“In general, neuroses are grouped as anxiety, depressive, compensation and post-traumatic. What category or categories are yours?”
And the Pope answered:
Anxiety neurosis. Wanting to do everything once and for all and right now. This is why one needs to know how to put on the brakes. We have to apply the famous proverb attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Dress me slowly; I’m in a rush.” I have my anxiety sufficiently under control. When I find myself facing a situation or I have to face a problem that makes me anxious, I cut it short.
I have different methods for doing it. One of them is to listen to Bach. It relaxes me and helps me to analyze problems in a better way. I confess that over the years I’ve managed to put a barrier at the entrance of anxiety in my spirit. It would be dangerous and harmful for me to make decisions in a state of anxiety. The same happens with the sadness produced by the impossibility of solving a problem. It’s also important to get it under control and know how to handle it. It would be equally harmful to make decisions when dominated by anxiety and sadness. This is why I say that a person needs to be attentive to their neuroses, since it’s something constitutive of their being.