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Pope Francis on behavioral healthcare

March 20, 2013
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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Did you hear what the new Pope said about what is needed to be addressed to improve behavioral healthcare? Of course not, because he didn't address that subject directly -- not even to comment on the psychological issues related to the scandalous sexual abuse behavior of so many priests.

Yet, what he did say in his homily at his inaugural Mass seems all too relevant for our field. For example, he stated:

"It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each, and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about."

We know, and I hope the Pope knows, that those with mental illness are among the last we think about in our society, that is, until there is a suspicion that mental illness is responsible for a mass murder. Not only are our overall resources to care for the mentally ill, at least in the USA, dwindling down, but the poor, for whom the Pope has shown such loving kindness, have always received less mental healthcare.

He even went into behavioral concerns that we in the field have tended to ignore and neglect. He said that the Church mission not only "respects each of God's creatures," but also respects "the environment we love." Given the ever-increasing evidence that our behavior has let to climate instability, we need to heed his call.

Further connecting people and the environment, he concluded that whenever we fail to take care of the environment and each other, "the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened." Certainly, we want to reduce destruction, whether that be via guns, cruelty, stigma, or war, and our treatments must be geared to softening hearts, should they not?

I'm not Catholic, but on the cusp of Spring, I felt the pope was speaking to me and my profession. Indeed, there is much overlap between religion and psychiatry. Our clocks have already sprung forward. Let healthy behavior spring forward also. Amen.



I appreciate Dr. Moffic's calling attention to the Pope's comments. I am not a Catholic, either, and I do understand the justifiable criticism the Catholic Church has received, with respect to the sexual abuse issue. That said, the Catholic Church has been quite consistent in its support for health care as a basic human right--and that includes mental health care.

As for "showing loving concern" for each and every person, this
teaching is also at the core of Judaism, Buddhism, and most of the world's major faiths. It is surely a foundational value in medical care and treatment.

Best regards,
Ron Pies MD

Dr Pies is a psychiatrist and bioethicist, and the author of
"The Three-Petalled Rose", a work on the common threads that unite Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism.

There is something highly effective in attaining out to those who are oppressed--financially, culturally, physically--especially psychologically. Behavior wellness issues are particularly misinterpreted and discriminated against, usually through sightless lack of knowledge.

Thanks so much to Dr. Pies for expanding the relevance of Pope Francis to behavioral healthcare. His international platform can do much to reduce the stigma of mental illness and help increase the resources for help, including those clergy struggling with psychological temptations.

In reflecing on the Pope's remarks, Dr. Moffic's piece touches on the important underlying values that motivate the best of healthcare in general, and mental health and addiction care in particular.

There is something powerful in reaching out to those who are oppressed--financially, socially, physically--especially mentally. Behavioral health problems are particularly misunderstood and discriminated against, generally through blind ignorance. This often causes those who suffer significant behavioral health problems to be considered among the very lowliest of people.

When I reflect on the Pope's remarks, and consider that significant behavioral health issues are often a causal factor in joblessness, homelessness, poverty, and incarceration, I'm not so sure that he wasn't talking exactly about behavioral health.

Great thoughts, Steve and Ron! More?

And, thank you, too, Dennis. You ask, "More"? There certainly is much more to say, by me, and I'm sure by others. To turn back on the loop between psychiatry and religion, religion itself can be a powerful force for mental well-being by providing social support, enhancing self-esteem, providing helpful relationships, and contributing to the meaning of one's life, among other things. On the other hand, it can cause divisiveness between religious denominations and groups, reject the non-believing, scapegoat others, and even cause wars.

When we focus down on an individual patient, finding out what religious beliefs they have, and have had, is crucial for incorporating what one values into the individual treatment plan.

Although we don't have the equivalent of a behavioral healthcare Pope to discuss these issues one on one with the Catholic Pope, collectively, at our best on both sides of this loop, we can improve mental well-being and enhance relationships between people of all faiths (including secular faith). Thankfully, we in psychiatry have moved beyond the Freudian notion that the god of any religion is just a projected illusion and that strong religious beliefs are just neurotic.


H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...

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