In our continuing series on the Saints and our mental health, we take time today to examine the life experiences of a father and daughter, both of whom struggled with their own mental health challenges. As we examine the experiences of St. Louis Martin and his daughter and Doctor of the Church, St. Therese Lisieux, we see indications of both the intergenerational character of mental health challenges, as well as the way life situations can hamper our mental health.
On both a spiritual and a psychological level, it can be extremely helpful for us to realize that mental health challenges are not isolated to those on the fringes of society, nor are they indications of a lack of faith or spiritual integrity on our part. It is also important to note that mental health challenges are complicated, and can be difficult to place into a fully genetic or contextual box.
St. Louis Martin had once hoped to enter the monastery of St. Bernard in Switzerland but was rejected due to his difficulties with Latin. Turning to life as a watchmaker and husband, Louis spent the next few years caring for his wife and nine children. It wasn’t until the age of 45 that he began experiencing challenges with his mental health. Following the death of his wife, he began to exhibit signs of dementia, obsessive compulsions, fear, and anxiety, as well as swings in mood from extreme depression to equally extreme, often religiously-themed excitement and elation.
At one point, after having gone missing for several days, he was found far from home seeking “to go and love God with all my heart”. By this point, Louis’ daughters had all entered the convent. In light of this, it was felt the only recourse for his care was to have him admitted to an asylum where he, sadly, succumbed to a stroke.
St. Louis’ youngest daughter, St. Therese of Lisieux, was also known to suffer from mental health issues. In a short period of time, starting at the age of four, she experienced her mother’s death, the loss of her older sisters as they moved to the convent, and the gradual degradation of her father’s mental health. By the age of ten, she seems to have suffered some form of an acute mental health crisis (often misnamed a ‘nervous breakdown’ – which is not a medical term). The culmination of her own mental health struggles had reached a point where she was overwhelmed physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
By the age of twelve, she exhibited unhealthy obsessions over her religious and moral life. This scrupulosity, often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders, is a common way for individuals suffering extreme anxiety and depression to cope with the intensity of the emotions they are carrying. This scrupulosity is something she would carry with her throughout her life.
In all of this, though she struggled with her physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health, she adamantly clung to her faith. She understood that faith is not something that ought to be supported by positive life experiences or even positive spiritual or religious experiences. In her own reflections, she writes, “While I do not have the joy of faith, I am trying to carry out its works at least. I believe that I have made more acts of faith in this past year than all through my whole life.”
St. Therese understood that her mental health challenges did not define her deepest self. Clinging stubbornly to her identification as a child of God, created in God’s own divine image, helped to increase her capacity for resiliency, even as she lived with often serious mental health challenges until her death from tuberculosis at the age of 24. Nor was it an obstacle to her being declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997.
Knowing we are not alone in our mental challenges, that we have powerful intercessors whose own life experiences of mental health struggles make them acutely aware of the realities of mental illness, and knowing that mental illness need not define our core identity, can provide us with a measure of comfort when faced with our own challenges or those whom we care for. May the intercessions of these two great, compassionate saints bring you and those you love comfort, consolation, and healing.
Peace and God Bless,
Deacon Eric Gurash