Many may not be aware that, in addition to being a Marian Month for Catholics, October has been marked as a month for encouraging mental health awareness for the past thirty years. The first week of October is traditionally set as a Mental Health Awareness week, while the 10th of October is recognized internationally as World Mental Health Day. Throughout the month, world mental health organizations encourage a focus on building awareness around depression, anxiety, and the need to make access to mental health care a reality for people around the world.
All this was on my mind as I reflected on the readings from the 29th Sunday in Ordinary time shared at Mass a few weeks ago. The familiar stories of Moses’ perpetually raised arms in Exodus, the persistent widow, and Jesus’ assurance that God hears our cries day and night provided an interesting perspective on mental health. Together with Psalm 121, these scriptures provide two key resources for us to turn to when faced with mental health challenges.
When Moses finds himself faced with a daunting task, as he does in our first reading, he often feels as though he needs to face it on his own. When sent by God to free Israel from Egypt, he simply tells God he can’t do it; it’s God who steps in and provides help in the form of his brother, Aaron.
In Exodus 17, Moses begins with the assumption that he alone will stand at the top of the hill with God’s staff to pray for success in battle; it is those around him, Aaron and Hur, who insists on helping him when the burden becomes too great. In the very next chapter, we find Moses again attempting to address the needs of all the tribes of Israel on his own until his father-in-law, Jethro, steps forward to confront him. In some translations, he begins with “Are you crazy?!” before he forces Moses to confront the truth that “You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
How often do we find ourselves in a position like Moses, carrying the weight of life’s daunting tasks or our struggles with depression, anxiety, and overwhelm alone? Years ago, my family and I realized we were putting most of our energy into making sure no one was aware of the mental health struggles we were experiencing, and the burden was destroying us. We were in great need of someone like Jethro to break us out of ourselves and see that what we really needed was to turn to others for help.
Our family is not alone in this experience. 1 out of every 4 families in our communities are suffering from mental health challenges, and for the most part, they, too, are putting most of their energy into surviving and making sure no one knows. Even before this global pandemic, rates of depression, anxiety, mood, and personality disorders were increasing. Some studies indicate that rates of depression and anxiety in North America are greater now than they were during WWI, WWII, and the Great Depression.
Perhaps you, too, are feeling overwhelmed and overburdened by the kinds of challenges that can weigh us down in the moment or across a lifetime. And perhaps you too are in need, like Moses, of a friendly, caring voice to say in all boldness, “What you are doing is not good….the task is too heavy…you cannot do it alone.” The kind of voice that can open our eyes to the Aarons and Hurs that God has placed in our path to offer a spot to sit and rest and to share the burdens we carry.
This is the first gift God provides in His Word. The second recognizes that, even if I have a Jethro, Aaron, or Hur in my life whom I can lean on, it’s not always easy to find the words to adequately give voice to what is taking place inside of my soul.
Here, our faith provides even more support in the form of the Psalms. These millennia-old prayers and hymns cover the entire gambit of human physical, emotional, and spiritual experience. The psalms are a school of prayer that gives us words and essential reminders that we can turn to in every human circumstance.
And so Ps 121 reminds me in my trials and struggles that “my help comes from the Lord,” and not just any lord, but the one who made all the heavens and the earth. This Lord of all creation never slumbers and is my sure and certain keeper; my shade when oppression beats down.
The psalms, which in themselves can provide a safe place to sit and rest, and support us when we’re tired of fighting, are another gift that draws us into the safe presence of our loving God.
This isn’t to say that the psalms are a replacement for professional counseling, therapy, or even medication when appropriate. At the same time, praying with them can provide real, lasting, and cumulative effects on our ability to weather the storms of mental health challenges as they affect our lives and families. The incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, is not only willing to allow his own heart to be broken by our pain but invites us to discover a path to healing, growth, and resiliency in his consoling arms.
I encourage you to seek out those supports that may be already around you; family members, friends, and professionals. Seek to add to those personal and professional supports where they may be lacking, and never stop turning to God and expressing your need. Our God will indeed hear us as we cry to Him day and night and will never delay in helping us.
Peace and God Bless,
Deacon Eric Gurash
If you are in need of mental health support, whether online or in-person, please visit our Resouces page.