On 2 September I was very pleased, along with the other members of the Dawson Society, to host a public lecture on the intersection between Catholic spirituality and mental health. The Dawson Society, which has been active for the past two years in Perth, has the stated aim of encouraging intellectual engagement with contemporary philosophical and cultural issues. We were particularly pleased that Dr Philippa Martyr PhD was able to tackle what is a very prevalent, and a difficult topic in our contemporary Australian society.
Dr Martyr, who trained as a medical historian specialising in the history of psychiatric medicine, started the evening by debunking a number of popular misconceptions concerning mental health. Speaking broadly, Dr Martyr identified two approaches to mental health issues within the wider Catholic community, the first that identifies mental health disorders as random, almost arbitrary, conditions curable only through medication. At the other end of the scale, there can be a tendency to conflate emotional problems with spiritual trials and to seek healing exclusively through the confessional.
Fundamentally, Dr Martyr identified the difficulty many Catholics may face in distinguishing the spiritual from the psychological, so that Catholics can find themselves approaching “spiritual directors with emotional problems and psychologists with spiritual issues”.
Dr Martyr’s own approach was centred in properly defining the nature of who we are as human beings, and using this understanding to uncover some of the causes of mental illness. Drawing from a Catholic understanding of the human person Dr Martyr emphasised the importance of the reason and freewill in shaping whom we become. For Dr Martyr this Catholic anthropology, dovetails with modern scientific understandings of the neuroplasticity of the human brain. This put simply means that our environment, the people that surround us and our own actions and habits, shape the very architecture of our brains.
From this understanding Dr Martyr suggested that high prevalence disorders (meaning mental disorders without underlying physical causes) are caused by repeated negative actions and habits or, to put it simply in Catholic language, by sin. This understanding encompasses both people who sin and harm themselves, and those people who are sinned against and harmed by the actions of people around them.
Dr Martyr concluded her talk by suggesting that this conception of mental disorders is fundamentally a liberating one. Rather than perceiving mental disorders as an unpredictable affliction, an understanding of the causes of mental health being rooted in free will can allow an individual, with the proper medical and spiritual support, to be the key player in their own mental health.
I encourage everyone to hear Dr Martyr’s talk in its entirety online at dawsonsociety.com.au as well as to check out past talks and coming events. Our next event on the 14th of October will feature Professor Karl Schmude from New South Wales. He will be speaking on some of the ideas that inspired the founding of the Dawson Society, in a lecture entitled, “The Artist and the Architect: G. K. Chesterton and Christopher Dawson”.
=======About Dawson Society=======
The Christopher Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture is an incorporated, not-for-profit association founded to encourage lay Christian engagement with contemporary philosophical and cultural issues. The Society takes its name from Christopher Dawson, the great English historian of the 20th century who throughout his work saw the world of spiritual belief “as the dynamic element in history and as a real world-transforming power.” It is the hope of the founders that in some small way the Dawson Society may uphold and continue the work of its namesake.