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What a Monk From 1,600 Years Ago Has to Say About Our Modern Mental Health Crisis

Depression is growing among young adults. But why?

According to the study that revealed these findings, it has something to do with “… factors such as technology and digital media use and sleep disturbance…” That study recommends further research in these areas.

The question then becomes whether or not these are the proximate causes of depression, suicidal ideation, and the like – or the symptoms of something deeper?

The study’s findings are most pertinent to adolescents 12 to 17 and young adults aged 18 to 25, “with smaller and less consistent increases among adults ages 26 and over.”

This just so happens to mirror the decline of religious affiliation in America.

Recently, it was reported that Religious “Nones” have become the largest religious group in America. Only 51 percent of those aged 18-29 are sure of their belief in God, versus 62 percent in the 30-49 age group.

There’s a trend of religious disaffiliation among young people – that much is clear. Less clear to many in modern society is how that affects mental health outcomes.

Why? One reason may be that “spiritual but not religious” practice is associated with a higher degree of self-focus. Here is part of an astonishing article in Psychology Today, drawing from a study on the matter:

Study author Vittengl suggests that, compared with religion’s structured and socially-supported ways of thinking and constructing meaning, depression and spirituality may share similar cognitive patterns, based on increased self-focus. For example, self-directed internal searches for meaning, ruminations about life, and a sense of an unending search may characterize both spirituality and depression; spiritual people therefore “may be engaging in a ‘lonely search’ for answers to their ultimate questions that, if unsatisfied, increases risk for depression.”

In other words, spirituality that exists outside of a framework – such as that provided by the Church, for example – almost always leads to an increased focus on “me” and what “I feel like.”

Focus on one’s own feelings, however, doesn’t lead to happiness. It doesn’t lead to meaning. It doesn’t lead to satisfaction or fulfillment. It leads to a spiritual dead end.

In fact, the article cited above specifically calls out modern spiritual-but-not-religious practices as less beneficial than the traditional religious framework:

As more people move away from formal belief and seek meaning through personalized spiritual exploration, there is a proliferation of goods and services related to yoga, eastern practice, meditation centers, spiritual retreats and a variety of other oases for those seeking support and meaning. Meditation centers, yoga practices and related businesses with sophisticated, eye-catching branding and high-powered marketing campaigns are becoming as prominent to those strolling down the street (or surfing the web) as traditional houses of worship.

Incredible. This is in Psychology Today! Hardly a faith-promoting publication. Why would they write like this?

Simply put, the evidence for the mental health benefits of religion is rock-solid. Many, many recent studies attest to this – and this article is just stating the obvious, or it’s obvious enough that Psychology Today feels okay putting out an unqualified statement about it. Attempts by modern society to draw religion out of life, or to paint it as irrelevant and old-fashioned, miss the point.

Because – and I recognize that some may laugh at such a statement – we were created for a higher purpose. It’s not as if humanity developed religion as a coping mechanism.

No, humanity’s very existence draws its meaning from God. This becomes more and more evident as the sciences continue to examine the causalities behind modern religious disaffiliation and mental health.

Depression is, to be sure, very much a physiological phenomenon also. No one should feel any qualms about seeking help from mental health professionals. If you are suffering from depression, find professional help that can assist you.

I will end this article with a long quote from Saint John Cassian (360-435), an early French Christian monk. 1,600 years ago, he seemed to understand the problems of our modern world better than we do today:

Our fifth struggle is against the demon of dejection, who obscures the soul’s capacity for spiritual contemplation and keeps it from all good works. When this malicious demon seizes our soul and darkens it completely, he prevents us from praying gladly, from reading Holy Scripture with profit and perseverance, and from being gentle and compassionate towards our brethren. He instills a hatred of every kind of work and even of the monastic profession itself. Undermining all the soul’s salutary resolutions, weakening its persistence and constancy, he leaves it senseless and paralyzed, tied and bound by its despairing thoughts.

If our purpose is to fight the spiritual fight and to defeat, with God’s help, the demons of malice, we should take every care to guard our heart from the demon of dejection. Just as a moth devours clothing and a worm devours wood, so dejection devours a man’s soul. It persuades him to shun every helpful encounter and stops him accepting advice from his true friends or giving them a courteous and peaceful reply. Seizing the entire soul. it fills it with bitterness and listlessness. Then it suggests to the soul that we should go away from other people, since they are the cause of its agitation. It does not allow the soul to understand that its sickness does not come from without, but lies hidden within, only manifesting itself when temptations attack the soul because of our ascetic efforts.

A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. It is for this reason that God, the Creator of all and the Doctor of men’s souls, who alone has accurate knowledge of the soul’s wounds, does not tell us to forsake the company of men; He tells us to root out the causes of evil within us and to recognize that the soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men. When we abandon our brothers for some apparently good reason, we do not eradicate the motives for dejection but merely exchange them, since the sickness which lies hidden within us will show itself again in other circumstances.

Thus it is clear that our whole fight is against the passions within. Once these have been extirpated from our hearts by the grace and help of God, we will readily be able to live not simply with other men, but even with wild beasts. Job confirms this when he says: “And the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you” (Job 5:23). But first we must struggle with the demon of dejection who casts the soul into despair. We must drive him from our heart. It was this demon that he did not allow Cain to repent after he had killed his brother, or Judas after he had betrayed his Master. The only form of dejection we should cultivate is the sorrow which goes with repentance for sin and is accompanied by hope in God. It was of this form of dejection that the Apostle said: “Godly sorrow produces a saving repentance which is not to be repented of” (2 Cor. 7:10). This “godly sorrow” nourishes the soul through the hope engendered by repentance, and it is mingled with joy. That is why it makes us obedient and eager for every good work: accessible, humble, gentle, forbearing, and patient in enduring all the suffering or tribulation God may send us. Possession of these qualities shows that a man enjoys the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, goodness, faith, self-control (cf. Gal. 5:22). But from the other kind of dejection we come to know the fruits of the evil spirit: listlessness, impatience, anger, hatred, contentiousness, despair, sluggishness in praying. So we should shun this second form of dejection as we would unchastity, avarice, anger and the rest of the passions. It can be healed by prayer, hope in God, meditation on Holy Scripture, and by living with godly people.

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