Religion can often be a source of spiritual comfort and support for people living with chronic health conditions, including mental illness. Many people struggling with one condition or another have found solace and meaning in the love and prayers of a community of faith and its creeds and traditions.
One such creed in the Catholic church is “the communion of saints.” According to this belief affirmed in The Apostle’s Creed, all believers, both those living and those deceased, belong to a spiritual family (communion) that transcends time and space.
Within this communion of saints, the Catholic tradition teaches, are “patron saints” who hear and answer particular prayers: St. Rita for help with loneliness; St. Valentine for relationship issues; St. Dympha for anxiety; and the list goes on. (In fact, St. Dympha is one of a number of Catholic “patron saints” to invoke for help with mental illness.)
How to Find Supports for Mental Illness from a “Communion of Saints”
For a person of faith living with mental illness, another benefit of being a member of a communion of saints is the consolation that can come from knowing they are not alone— that many great saints of the church struggled with similar challenges. Centuries before medical innovations and treatments made better quality of life possible (even for those with severe mental illnesses), church fathers and mothers battled many of the same mental health conditions that we do today. (Learn how treatment is helping people effectively manage their anxiety at FHE Health.)
In addition to a sense of spiritual connection and solidarity, the lives and stories of these saints can provide inspiration and encouragement to those struggling with depression, anxiety, or another debilitating condition. Many of these saints did extraordinary things in spite of their mental health struggles. Many of them outdid others in living sacrificially; many achieved heroic things.
These holy women and men of God may have suffered from mental illness, but that did not primarily define how the church remembered them. Their memory lives on because of the unique and exemplary contributions they made to the church and the world.
As the following list of saints (by no means exhaustive) will attest, some of the saintliest people in the Catholic church’s history dealt with mental illness. Their experience with mental illness can encourage anyone who may be struggling with a similar condition that they are not alone; they have nothing to be ashamed about; and they, too, have much to contribute to the church and the world.
5 Saints Who Lived with Mental Illness
- St. Alphonsa Muttathupadathu (1910-1946) was a nun in India who lived with chronic and severe illnesses much of her life. Through it all, she sought to teach and serve others sacrificially. In 1940, after an intruder broke into her convent cell, she experienced a nervous breakdown, followed by a loss of memory and the ability to read and write. The debilitating amnesia and PTSD-like symptoms persisted for about a year, after which more physical illnesses set in. St. Alphonsa died young but reportedly joyfully, with an assurance that she had fulfilled her calling to be a “sacrifice of suffering” (in her words).
- St. Albert Chmielowski (1845-1916), an artist by training, was preparing to start a religious order that would serve the poor in Krakow, Poland when he had to be hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. He reportedly spent nine months in a psychiatric hospital being treated for “hypochondria, melancholy [probably depression], religious insanity, anxiety, and psychic oversensitivity.” “Father Albert” (as he came to be known) was so committed to ministering to the poor, according to an article in the National Catholic Register, that he auctioned off all of his paintings to help renovate and improve Krakow’s homeless shelter. He then went on to found not one but two religious orders devoted to the poor, the Albertine Brothers and Sisters. They in turn set up homes for the poor, sick, and the elderly in 20 cities in Poland.
- Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), a Carmelite nun, experienced enormous loss and suffering during her short life. The speculation, according to an article in The Christian Century, is that she may have suffered from both obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and bipolar disorder. (Elsewhere, her bouts of depression have been noted.) Despite these challenges, Thérèse still managed to write a book of spiritual writings that has inspired readers across the generations. This book of essays set out Thérèse’s doctrine “of the Little Way,” defined as the way of childlike trust and surrender to God’s purposes. It was a path that Thérèse knew well; she followed it up until her death from tuberculosis at the age of 24.
- Blessed Enrico Rebuschini (1860-1937), an Italian Camillian priest, was beatified in 1987 by Pope John Paul II. His life calling and ministry were to the sick and the elderly. He spent nearly 40 years serving residents at a nursing home in his native Italy. What many people may not have known was that across his life, in his 20s, 30s, and into his 60s, he had to be hospitalized for severe episodes of depression.
- St. Oscar Romero, (1917-1980), canonized in 2018 by Pope Francis who called him “a martyr for the faith,” reportedly struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). After a psychiatrist diagnosed him in his late 40s, Romero had the courage to seek counseling. He struggled across his lifetime with OCD— even when, as an archbishop in El Salvador, he was speaking out against the atrocities of the country’s then military regime and defending the rights of the poor. Romero was murdered by a right-wing death squad while saying mass. Tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral to remember his legacy as an advocate for human rights, victims of violence, and the poor.
These five saints who battled mental illness while making memorable contributions to the church and the world are among many, many more people of faith who have struggled with mental illness across the centuries. Some of the saints on this list, people like Blessed Enrico Rebuschini and St. Oscar Romero, lived during a time when they could access treatment and did. They can be a positive example and reminder for anyone on the fence about seeking treatment— that treatment is worth it, and that ultimately, faith, hope, and love prevail.