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Alumna psychologist Dr. Helena Orellana (’11) joined several prominent Catholic thinkers, including the Most Rev. Robert E. Barron, at a United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Roundtable discussion of the mental health crisis among young people in the United States.

Dr. Orellana
Dr. Helena Orellana ('11)

While that crisis is often attributed to Covid-19 lockdowns and the impact of social media, Dr. Orellana — assistant professor and director of clinical training in the Doctorate in Psychology program at Divine Mercy University — noted that its roots are much older and deeper. 

“The family has been suffering for a long time,” she said, emphasizing that, for years, “what family purpose and values mean has been a question mark and a place of confusion.” Amplifying the twilight of the family is the decline of religion in American life. “People are not accessing the sources of stability, meaning, purpose, and just outward focus that have been so psychologically stabilizing,” she said, adding that the foremost such source is spiritual. “Religion, from the time that we began to study it as a field, has always been a stabilizing force.”

Having identified the crisis’s spiritual roots, though, Dr. Orellana was careful not to oversimplify. “Mental illness needs mental healthcare,” she insisted. Citing her own clinical experience, she laments that many Catholic patients come to therapy with “the perception that what they’re undergoing is because of a spiritual failure.” The spiritual dimension is integral to “a full picture of human nature,” but coexists alongside the other dimensions of the human person. Patients need not choose between sacraments or therapy. “You can still get treatment,” she said, “and go to church.”

“What underlies all suffering is a deep cry for meaning, a desperate cry for healing and for understanding, of ‘Why is this happening to me?’ ‘Does God care?’” said Dr. Orellana. “The Church has the fullness of that answer, which is that He Himself suffers, because He sees you suffer. He meets you there.”

Grounding therapy in God’s plan of love thus provides a path for overcoming the mental-health crisis among young people, many of whom need to be reminded of their inestimable worth as children of God. “We need each person. Each person has something that only they can offer,” said Dr. Orellana. “If we can help people attend to that reality, it’s just transformative; it really moves us through suffering in the way nothing else can.”