Some time ago, I saw a documentary on the Jonestown Massacre and recall hearing a survivor say that he decided to travel to Guyana against his better judgement because he thought that living on the agricultural compound would mold him into a better person, and help him become overcome the shortcomings that he perceived to be present in his life. While Jonestown is an extreme example, I think this general sentiment of putting one’s hope in an outside organization or guru-type figure to help “straighten one out” is common, and is one reason why so many people are attracted to groups, religious or otherwise, that are categorized as “high demand.” In the context of Catholicism, I think that the rigors of monastic life or what I call “high demand lay spirituality” can be attractive for people who are suffering from some kind of mental illness or emotional imbalance.
Many canonized saints come off to me as being somewhere on the autism spectrum. I don’t say this in a derogatory manner; on the contrary, it seem like pre-modern Europe had a place in society for people who were “different,” and these people were able to be taken care of and achieve social status. For example, Christina the Astonishing definitely seems to have suffered from a self-mutilating form of ASD, in my opinion:
The same can be said for Joseph of Cupertino:
I think that monastic life would be very appealing for someone with ASD, since it’s very orderly and quiet, and saying 100s of ritualistic prayers at a time would be classified as piety, rather than OCD. Of course, a monastery (especially one in the pre-modern era) would be unable to provide the kind of psychiatric or medical care that could help a person with ASD overcome their obsessions and/or physical afflictions, but to be fair, there would not have been any secular institutions that would have been helpful either. Even today, the state of psychiatric medicine lags behind physiological medicine, and access to scientifically based mental health services is difficult to obtain unless one’s family is at least somewhat “well- to-do” (I can speak from personal experience that many mental health professionals don’t take insurance).
Whatever benefits monastic living or high demand lay spirituality might have offered for keeping the proverbial demons at bay in the past, a purely religious response to mental health is insufficient for dealing with mental health in the modern world. Conservative Christians (regardless of the actual denomination) often take the view psychological problems are simply a spiritual problem that can be “prayed away” if one has enough faith and willpower:
You see this “pray away the cray” sentiment more in evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, but I’ve definitely encountered an anti-therapy contingent among conservotrad Catholics, which I assume is due to the fact that modern psychology and psychiatry posits a different anthropology than traditional Christianity. This is why I blamed myself for my depression at St F, as I believed that my inability to get better was the result of my own “spiritual failure.”
Communities, whether secular or religious, play a big part in helping or worsening conditions for individuals suffering from mental illness, and right now I think that very few are really set up to address the needs of individuals with psychological problems. For all of their pro-life posturing, I think that if a severely autistic child had a meltdown during a mass at St F, the parishioners would have shown the child and his/her family the door. Can’t have the Blessed Sacrament being disrespected by mental illness, after all. Ideally, requiring supports for the psychologically challenged would be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but given how many people are ideologically opposed to the presence of wheelchair ramps, as well the idea of “requiring” businesses not to discriminate, I’m not confident that this will be happening anytime soon.
Ultimately, I concluded that religion isn’t going to help make up for the shortcomings in one’s own life. In some cases, joining a religious organization may help one find a supportive community, but having a relationship with Jesus/Allah/Yahweh/Buddha/Shiva isn’t going to solve the underlying problems of a chemical brain imbalance or an emotional disorder. For the severely mentally ill, finding the right combination of medication and therapy can be a matter of life and death, not just for the afflicted, but for their friends and family (see the Andrea Yates case).