Depression is an incredibly common mental illness affecting millions of people every single year. It’s an illness that robs a person of joy and can cause some pretty scary symptoms while negatively impacting many areas of one’s life.
But there is hope — not only in attentive treatment and mental health care, but also in the fact that the saints of the Catholic Church are able to serve as both inspiration and intercessors for those experiencing depression and their loved ones.
What is depression?
Many of us know someone who has been affected by depression or we’ve experienced it ourselves. Depression is a common mental illness that is characterized by deep feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable, in addition to a host of other symptoms that range from insomnia, appetite changes, and even suicidal thoughts. It can impact every aspect of life, from work, to family, to relationships, and one’s faith.
The American Psychiatric Association estimates that one in 15 adults experiences depression every year, and one in six will experience this mental illness at least once in their lifetime. Though a stigma against mental illness still exists today, it’s becoming a more frequently talked-about topic as people speak out about their struggles and encourage others to seek help.
Turning to the saints
There are several saints who are particularly inspiring to those suffering with depression. We can not only ask them for their intercession and prayers before God similar to how we would ask a friend to pray for us, but we can also look to the model of their lives for assurance that suffering doesn’t have the last word, and that there is always hope despite the darkness we might be facing.
It’s important to note that if you believe you’re suffering from symptoms of depression, you should seek evaluation and treatment from a mental health professional. Prayer and spirituality are valuable assets to deal with mental health challenges, but they shouldn’t be used instead of or in place of mental health treatment.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t turn to the holy men and women throughout history who have struggled similarly. They can pray for us and give us strength to know we aren’t alone in our struggles.
Here are four saints you can look to if you’re struggling with depression or if you know someone who is.
St. Dymphna is the patron saint of those who struggle with depression or anxiety, which is why she’s perhaps the most well-known and called-upon saint for mental illness. She lived during the seventh century in Ireland; her father was not Catholic and her mother died when she was relatively young.
After her mother’s death, Dymphna’s father experienced severe mental illness, and in his psychosis wanted to marry Dymphna to replace her mother. Dymphna refused her father’s propositions and fled to Belgium, and ultimately was beheaded by soldiers commanded by her father.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre
St. Benedict Joseph Labre was born in France in 1748 as one of 18 children. The deepest desire of his youth was to become a priest, so he left home at a young age to study with his uncle, who was a priest. His uncle died, however, and Benedict subsequently tried and failed ten times to join various religious communities.
When he was finally accepted into a religious community, the way of life proved detrimental to his mental health and he left after neurosis made it impossible to continue. He found his true vocation, however, in becoming a pilgrim: he went on pilgrimages to all of the major shrines in Europe, living in poverty along the way. He spent the last six years of his life in Rome, sleeping in the Coliseum at night and praying in various churches. Those who knew him in Rome quickly began recognizing him as a saint after his death at age 35 and he was canonized in 1881. He is also the patron saint of the homeless.
St. Louis Martin
St. Louis Martin is best known for being the saint-father of the beloved St. Therese of Lisieux. He is a model for holy fatherhood, and he and his wife, St. Zelie, are the only married couple ever canonized by the Church. But he also may have experienced depression later in life.
All five of his daughters grew up to join convents, and his wife died when she was only 45 (when St. Therese was 4). He began to display symptoms of mental illness not long after Therese entered the convent. After experiencing symptoms of dementia, depression, speech impediments, episodes of fear, and even running away for days at a time, he was eventually placed in a mental hospital. While he is the patron saint of widowers and parents, he also knew what it was to experience depression, making him a great saint to turn to in the midst of mental health struggles.
St. Jane Frances de Chantal
St. Jane lived from 1572 to 1651 in France and was born to wealthy parents. She married and had four children, but her husband died in a hunting accident. After this, she fell into a deep depression, which was made worse when her difficult father-in-law insisted she and her children move in with him.
She sought a spiritual director and met St. Francis de Sales when he came to her town during Lent to preach a retreat. St. Francis de Sales, also a saint often invoked for help with anxiety and depression, offered guidance and counsel that helped her encounter the love and mercy of God. His work, Introduction to the Devout Life, (which is still popular today) gave her great peace.
The saints and depression
These four men and women are great saints to call upon if you or a loved one are struggling with depression, or if you occasionally have a day where you’re feeling down. Avoid over-spiritualizing mental illness — don’t replace mental health treatment like counseling with prayer. But turning to the lives and intercession of saints who have experienced many of the same struggles we face can only serve to edify and encourage us in our daily lives.