Pray with the Pope: November 2021
Pope’s Prayer Intention: We pray that people who suffer from depression or burnout will find support and a light that opens them up to life.
How we see depression and burnout
Depression is common, and it is commonly stigmatised, despite being better understood today. Perhaps we all have a deep, visceral fear of depression? Everyone gets down or even depressed at times, so we have all, as it were, looked into the abyss of the real thing — clinical depression — and we are afraid.
So, although depression is not contagious like certain physical diseases, some people avoid others who are depressed. They say that they don’t want to be around “negative people”. In other words, they fear that somehow they will “pick up” the depression that others suffer from. This is perhaps not entirely irrational. Sometimes we all might want to avoid people whose company is capable of lowering our spirits.
By contrast, we are generally more sympathetic to those who get burned-out. We readily acknowledge the environmental factors that cause burnout — being overworked, handling a particularly taxing situation or negotiating one of life’s catastrophes — because most of us have been there. There is also something perversely heroic about burnout; it’s not something that happens to the lazy, so those who suffer from it must be highly productive and therefore to be highly valued.
We should consider the environmental factors and pray that we, as a society, attend to those, too. The Covid pandemic has made us more aware of how what happens in our world can affect our mental health.
And even when modern society is functioning “normally”, there are clearly things militating against good mental health. A general lack of meaning has to be an important one. If we have opted to find our meaning in the acquisition of material things, we will sooner or later find ourselves in a spiritual vacuum.
The loss of control
One only has to read accounts of the work of our doctors and nurses during the nightmares of the successive waves of the pandemic to understand how the workplace environment can cause depression and burnout. Long hours, a sense of being overwhelmed, having to play God in deciding who receives life-giving treatment and who doesn’t. Any one of these things could cause a person to burn out or become depressed.
In addition, there are changing social structures, the erosion of the extended family, the loss of transcendent values; all these things can contribute to burnout. However, the immediate trigger often seems to be a loss of control. There is just too much work piling up and too little time in which to get it done. The person feels overwhelmed and eventually can no longer cope.
Support is obviously vital in countering the effects of depression and burnout. I find it sad to read that the days are over when people by their applause would support health workers going on their shifts to work with Covid patients. When politicians tell us that we just have to get used to living with the disease, they overlook the implications of this for health workers whose lives sometimes look as if they will never return to “normal”.
The crazy thing about people suffering mental stress on account of overwork is the fact that we live in a country with terrifyingly high unemployment. We do not lack people who seek work, but no one will hire them.
Let us pray for the unemployed and also for sane policies about the funding and provision of staff for those services which this pandemic has shown to be essential.