December 22, 2023

Growing spiritually improves mental health, as ‘faith does wonderful things’

Patty Moore offers spiritual direction to a directee at the Benedict Inn Retreat & Conference Center in Beech Grove on Jan. 4. (Submitted photo)

Patty Moore offers spiritual direction to a directee at the Benedict Inn Retreat & Conference Center in Beech Grove on Jan. 4. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of articles addressing mental health, including the role of faith in seeking wholeness. Andrew DeHart, who is mentioned in this article, is a relative of the author. See the first part here, the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part here.)

By Natalie Hoefer

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

These words of Christ speak to his desire for our wholeness. It is a mission the Church embraces, particularly in terms of spiritual and mental health.

“We can’t separate our physical, psychological and spiritual aspects,” says Tom Konechnik, a Catholic mental health counselor at Integritas Psychological Services in Indianapolis, who is also a spiritual director. “That’s who we are and the way God made us as human beings. We’re one being with multiple aspects, just like the Trinity is one.”

This five-part series has addressed mental health issues of children, teens, adults and those with chemical and behavioral addiction, with insights from Catholic counselors who know the benefits of incorporating faith in treatment.

This final article focuses on spiritual aids for the God-designed synthesis of mental and spiritual wellness. (Related: Spiritual resources can provide help, healing from mental health issues)

One of the Church’s oldest forms of such aid is spiritual direction.

Discerning ‘the movement of God within’

While spiritual direction has been part of the Church for millennia, an air of mystique swirls around the practice, says Beverly Hansberry, who has 15 years of experience as a spiritual director.

“Some think it’s only for priests and religious, or only for very religious people,” she says. “The truth is, it’s for all those who seek to look at their life experience through the lens of God.”

There are some things spiritual direction “is not,” Hansberry cautions.

“It’s not counseling,” she says. “It’s not about fixing or problem solving. It’s not about telling a person what to do. It’s more about the director listening intently to the directee and helping that person to discern the movement of God within themselves.”

Since there is a connectedness between mind and spirit, Hansberry adds, “It’s possible that some emotional trauma or pain or other mental health issue may come to the surface in the course of spiritual direction.”

In those instances, spiritual directors are trained to suggest counseling and to have a list of counselors handy to recommend.

“It’s actually not uncommon to have a spiritual director and a counselor,” Hansberry adds. “That can work very well.”

Konechnik agrees, noting that “quite a few studies support the idea that when people increase in spiritual health, they can improve in mental health. And for those with mental health issues, there are greater outcomes if they’re in counseling and also increasing in spiritual health.”

The archdiocese’s “Guidelines for Spiritual Direction” ( do recommend those seeking healing from emotional trauma or a mental health disorder first seek counseling.

“Counseling deals with coping mechanisms and making the necessary changes in life so the client can function on a daily basis,” it states.

“It is only then that the person has the self-possession and stillness to listen to the Spirit,” who, it notes, is “the real director in spiritual direction.”

Retreats can be a ‘game-changer’

Retreats are a concentrated dose of that “stillness to listen to the Spirit.” Some focus on the role of faith in healing from a specific type of emotional pain or trauma, like grief, suicide loss or abortion.

But some retreats deal with spiritual healing from any emotional pain or trauma.

For Andrew DeHart, one such retreat was “a game-changer”—the “Healing the Whole Person” retreat, based on the book Be Healed by Bob Schuchts, a retired Catholic therapist.

Both the retreat and the book look at sin developing as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional wounds, particularly when turning to the world for healing instead of to Christ.

For example, one might use gluttony to cover the pain of a childhood trauma. In Schuchts’ case, his turning away from God (pride) arose from the emotional hurt of his father deserting his family.

The retreat was an opportunity “to first drill down and identify my past wounds,” says DeHart, a former member of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis who now lives in Texas. “From there, I could see where I subconsciously used sin as a Band-Aid to cover the pain.”

With wounds and sins exposed, the retreat (and the Be Healed book) points to encountering Christ through prayer and the sacraments as a path to healing.

“Being able to identify my wounds and work toward healing with Christ and the Church was freeing,” says DeHart.

He admits that healing is “an evolutionary, not a revolutionary process. It’s something we work on throughout our whole lifetime.”

Still, he says, “understanding woundedness and working with Christ through the Church has allowed me to experience my spirituality more deeply.”

‘Faith does wonderful things’

“Working with Christ through the Church” points to one of the simplest spiritual aids for seeking wholeness, says Konechnik.

“The practices of prayer, daily Mass if possible, [eucharistic] adoration, confession—trying to grow in those practices as best as possible” can lead to an increase in spiritual and mental health, he says.

One prayer he often recommends to his clients is the Surrender Novena.

“There is something paradoxical about the realization that the first step toward healing is so often to recognize that I cannot do it alone,” he says.

Kile Stevens, who was featured in the first article of this series, finds comfort in Marian devotion in his struggles with bipolar-1 disorder.

“When I was in my darkest pits with this disease, she has been my mother, especially Our Lady of Sorrow,” says the member of the Oratory of SS. Philomena and Cecelia in Oak Forest. “Because of her part in giving her Son over to the cross, she is able to understand all our pain, all our suffering. She is perfect, so she can guide us to Jesus perfectly.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola’s 14 rules for spiritual discernment have been a source of consolation for Tom Renken as he copes with pervasive depressive disorder.

“Especially rule eight,” says the member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, who was also featured in the series’ first article. “It’s about telling yourself that the desolation will only last a little longer.”

With 2,000 years of teaching and writing by Church fathers, popes, priests, mystics, religious and saints, there is no end to the treasury of help the Church can offer to those seeking wholeness.

“Faith helps,” says Renken. “You think about the world differently when you know you’re loved.

“It’s not always that simple,” he adds. “But when I remember to rely on it, faith does wonderful things.” †

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