It is impossible to ignore the huge increase in the awareness of mental health issues. Many readers will be personally affected either by mental health issues of their own, or of friends or family members. A spiritual director must tread very carefully in this complex and delicate field. There is a temptation to approach mental health issues with a simplistic approach along the lines of ‘get to know Jesus better and all will be well.’ It is true, of course: a deepening understanding of the gospel and a richer personal relationship with God is a sure source of healing and reconciliation.
The need for careful discernment can arise in several ways. If a person is on medication for depression, or on medication to stabilise violent and sudden mood swings, this is bound to reveal itself in the way an individual experiences their own ‘inner life.’ It is possible that some of their most profound and powerful emotions are deadened or obscured. It is also possible that someone being freed by medical intervention from the paralysing effect of anxiety is able to reflect on his or her own life with a new clarity. The directee’s ability to share their experience of prayer and the obstacles and opportunities they have in their personal encounter with the Lord is the essential starting point for effective spiritual direction and therefore it is vital to have a clear understanding of what the ‘filters’ are at work in relating them to the director.
In my judgement, where possible, a directee should be encouraged to fully disclose any treatment they are having, and how they believe it helps or hinders their life in Christ. One of the positive outcomes of opening up this discussion is recognition, on the part of the director, that this is an important aspect (perhaps most important) of this person’s life and that the director wishes to work in partnership with any medical interventions. In the past I have known both psychiatrists and psychologists to encourage an individual with a spiritual director to use that relationship as a ‘complementary therapy.’
Ironically, spiritual direction, founded as it is as on the grace at work through the gospel of Jesus Christ, is the foundational and providential way to wholeness. Perhaps a medical-based intervention should be seen as the complementary one! There is a double irony here: the way of Christian prayer and discipleship is the original cognitive behavioural therapy: the Christian is seeking constantly to have their mind ‘renewed after the manner of Christ Jesus.’ Jesus is the original life coach whose whole example was one of ‘mindfulness.’ In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches a dwelling in each moment: ‘Give no thought for the morrow, today has enough troubles of its own.’
As in everything, it is the director’s role to be a minister of this gospel of hope by which we believe that ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ Above all things, in every situation, the director has a clear responsibility to enable the person they minister to leave them being assured of the truth of the gospel, and help them embrace that truth in their situation no matter how dark and difficult that may be.