When Tommy Tighe launched his podcast “St. Dymphna’s Playbook” in 2019, he stepped into a void that’s existed far too long: the need for accessible conversation about mental health and how it relates to faith. (St. Dymphna lived in seventh-century Ireland and is patron saint for mental health.)
Tighe is a licensed marriage and family therapist from the California Bay Area (his Twitter handle is a handy pronunciation guide for his last name: @theghissilent), and after listening to a couple episodes, I began recommending his podcast to everyone — parents wondering if their children are manifesting symptoms of depression or anxiety; family members facing a new diagnosis; close friends shouldering their private burdens and beginning to ask questions like, “What should I look for in a therapist?” or, “Will medication change who I am?”
As a podcast, “St. Dymphna’s Playbook” is short (each episode averages 20 minutes), structured, and to the point, woven together by the compassionate tone of an experienced therapist. And now Tighe has a new book that takes the same approach: St. Dymphna’s Playbook: A Catholic Guide to Finding Mental and Emotional Well-Being.
Tighe makes it clear in the introduction that this is not meant to be a self-help book — a 10-page chapter on anhedonia is not going to cure your depression. Instead, I would consider this book a fast-paced, easy-to-read introduction to common obstacles to mental and emotional wholeness.
For anyone anguished over watching a loved one suffer, curious to learn more or to correct preconceptions of mental illness, or beginning to ask themselves if what they’re feeling is more than just average sadness or worry, St. Dymphna’s Playbook would be an excellent, compassionate onramp to further study of these topics — or perhaps the gentle nudge you need to seek help, yourself.
Chapters are a short discussion of a different challenge to mental or emotional health, from depression to unhealthy relationships. Each offers both medical and spiritual insight into possible relief, introduces a saint whose life and intercession could have particular relevance to readers with similar experiences, and ends with a short prayer from Scripture or the saints.
I also appreciate that each chapter includes a segment titled, “Is There Healing and Relief Out There?” — a short review of what modern medicine has to offer — as well as “What the Bible Says About (Feeling Detached, Social Anxiety, etc.).” Tighe doesn’t approach faith and reason as being opposed, but rather a two-pronged approach to seeking wholeness.
The chapter on self-harm is a good example of why faith and mental health issues need to be in conversation together. After all, our tradition can be confusing about the dangers of self-harm when so many of our saints were known for practicing severe acts of mortification on their bodies, such as extreme fasting, wearing painful clothes, or even whipping themselves. Tighe carefully parses this out, pointing out the difference between the saints’ acts (meant to draw them closer to God, and done under the guidance of a spiritual director who knew their interior disposition) and self-harming as a coping mechanism:
(The saints) grew closer to Christ in their lives than most of us could ever imagine, and they dedicated their lives to helping Christ in the poor and suffering and the salvation of souls. Most often, when we’re stuck in a cycle of self-harm, we actually feel quite the opposite. We feel isolated, further away from God, and these fruits should alert us to the fact that we are destined for healing and something better.
His practical takeaways in the chapter, along with therapy, revolve around replacing the urge to self-harm with other coping strategies, and, most importantly, to write down what triggers this urge — and what helps — at a time when we’re feeling well.
This balanced approach will be especially helpful for Catholics who, while not outright denying the need for mental health care, tend to over spiritualize issues that aren’t necessarily visible on a CT scan or blood panel. Perhaps you’ve heard them:
He’s been suffering so much from PTSD — I’m sure this prayer for healing is what he needs.
I’m so sorry you’re dealing with anxiety — have you tried praying to be able to trust God more?
If people went to confession more, they’d need less therapy.
It’s not that these instincts to turn to prayer and the sacraments are wrong — but all too often, they’re all that’s offered to someone suffering mental anguish. Well-intentioned or not, I find it often reflects a blindspot or stigma towards the abilities of psychology and medicine, and Tighe makes it clear that seeking professional help can’t be overlooked in seeking healing.
At the same time, I have friends on the other end of that spectrum — they are already acutely aware of their mental health diagnoses and are looking for clarity on how to carry that burden. For those who are already doing that arduous, deep plumbing of their wounds through therapy and medication, I’m not sure how much of Tighe’s book will be new. I do think St. Dymphna’s Playbook could have benefitted from more depth in the mental health area, perhaps instead of spending a fifth of the book on relationship issues.
That said, Tighe himself hopes his book offers something to every reader, regardless of their journey in mental or emotional health: a sense of community, of not being alone. This is the strongest point of St. Dymphna’s Playbook: bringing mental health issues to light, and into the heart of a community who can bear them together.
“The best thing we can do to break the stigma around mental illness in our Church and our communities and to help those suffering … is to talk about it,” Tighe writes. He concludes powerfully:
Remember, we are not less than because we experience mental illness or mental health symptoms of any kind. We are not less loved, less lovable, less children of God, less capable — less anything. Instead, we offer the Church something it so dearly needs in order to help the suffering of this world. We have experience, the understanding of the Cross, and hope, and we can give all of that to those who are desperately asking for it for our Church.
After all, we are the Church.
Is there room for faith in a discussion of psychiatric disorders? Is it possible to live well — virtuously, lovingly, hoping for heaven even while longing for healing on earth — even when living with mental illness? St. Dymphna’s Playbook answers with a hopeful yes.