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The Mental Health Crisis: A Conversation with Dr. Anthony Isacco

October 13, 2023


Anthony Isacco, PhD, is a Catholic psychologist on the faculty of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, where he is a professor of graduate psychology and the director of training for the PsyD program. His clinical areas of interests include positive father involvement, religious and spiritual factors to men’s health, and working with religious populations such as priests, deacons, seminarians, and women religious. He maintains a small private practice working with dioceses and religious communities on the psychological assessment of candidates pursuing religious vocations.  

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Isacco in Baton Rouge recently, where we were both speakers at a continuing education conference on medical ethics called “Converging Roads,” which was held by the Saint John Paul II Foundation.

Dr. Isacco’s presentation in Baton Rouge on the mental health crisis was particularly interesting to me and inspired me to publish an article on the importance of community for those living with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The topic of individuals who are dually diagnosed with both intellectual or developmental disability and a mental health issue is growing in interest among families and those who care for them.

Dr. Isacco discusses factors that have contributed to the current mental health crisis in the US and how these also apply to persons living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  

Mark Bradford: Anthony, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. I found your presentation in Baton Rouge fascinating in that it gave structure to what many of us know:that recent events—namely, the Covid lockdowns—have led to a mental health crisis in the US.

To get us started, would you provide a high-level overview of the crisis, its causes, and the interplay of factors that can cause one to find themselves struggling to cope nowadays? Some of the statistics you mentioned were shocking.

Anthony Isacco: Mark, thank you for taking the time for this interview. I really enjoyed meeting you in Baton Rouge as well. I appreciate your attention to this important topic.

Yes, I think the first step is for people to accept that we are in a mental health crisis. I could give you many statistics to support that statement, but for the sake of brevity and to not reduce the crisis to simple numbers, I’ll say that since 2019, the rates of psychological disorders—anxiety, depression, etc.—have increased. Beyond the statistics and to keep the dignity of people at our forefront, I really want to emphasize that I have had a front row seat to this crisis. It is real and has affected parents, children, families; the rich and the poor; people of diverse races and ethnicities; Catholic and non-Catholics, and more.  

Increased stress during a time of vulnerability and compromised resilience leads to serious mental health concerns.

Compounding the crisis is the shrinking pool of qualified, competent mental health professionals. The pool is shrinking because the very good mental health professionals are only available on a waitlist right now. Some have decided to scale back their clinical work because of the emotional demands of their patients. I am aware of waitlists as long as six months to a year. I do not even refer people to psychiatrists anymore because waitlists can be six months to a year. What message is that for a person struggling with a mental health issue—call, provide your contact information, and then wait six months to get help? 

The factors at play in the crisis are complex and very individualized, but to speak generally to a broad audience, I identified three main factors: vulnerability, stress, and resilience.  

Now, in 2023, we look back to 2019 with selective nostalgia. But we need to acknowledge that prior to the pandemic, we were very vulnerable as a society. Societal trends were showing that people lacked meaning in their lives, were feeling more and more isolated and lonely, were conflicted over hot button political and social issues, broken families, and faced structural and systemic barriers to social mobility. The pandemic came at this time of vulnerability and brought with it mass confusion, stress, fear, and adverse experiences of all varieties. That stress exacerbated the existing vulnerability. To highlight this point, the American Psychological Association conducts an annual survey of stress in America and this statement from the 2022 results sums things up pretty well:

Concerned for the future, beset by inflation, stress in America 2022 shows a battered American psyche, facing a barrage of external stressors that are mostly out of personal control. The survey found a majority of adults are disheartened by government and political divisiveness, daunted by historic inflation levels, and dismayed by widespread violence.

When people feel vulnerable and stressed, they need sources of resilience. The pandemic took away many of those sources of resilience, such as social bonds, community belonging, workplace collegiality, religious participation, and it left people to basically conjure up their own internal resilience. 

Stated simply, increased stress during a time of vulnerability and compromised resilience leads to serious mental health concerns. When those concerns are recognized at a national level, we face a crisis. 

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Mark Bradford: People have related in different ways to the cultural and public health stresses of the last few years. How is it that some people seem to have remained unscathed, and others are in crisis. Am I naïve in assuming some have remained unscathed, or do you think that there has been an overall weakening of our social bonds that has affected everyone?

Anthony Isacco: I do not think that anyone remained completely unscathed. I’ve noticed a collective post-pandemic syndrome emerge in which people constantly refer back to the pandemic with phrases like, “During the pandemic . . .,” which then evokes some terrible memory, negative feeling, residual scar that is not quite wounded. But yes, people dealt with stressors and vulnerabilities in different ways, some positive, some negative. 

Here, I want to highlight the importance of resilience, which is the ability to withstand and bounce back from stress. Resilience can buffer against the onset of a mental health diagnosis. People with external sources of resilience such as family, spousal, community supports are very blessed. Economic means that provide access to healthcare (medical and mental), social capital, private schools, and growth opportunities are also a blessing. And people with internal sources of resilience such as fortitude, prudence, healthy coping skills, prayer, finding meaning in suffering, and taking the initiative to “scratch and claw” through the stressors. All of those people that had a combination of external and internal resilience have fared the best from my observations. 

Mark Bradford: You mentioned in your presentation that religion and spirituality are sources of resilience during times of stress. Some have said that the Church let us down during the Covid crisis by closing the doors of our churches, making both community and the Eucharist unavailable. What are your thoughts?

Anthony Isacco: Mark, that is a great question. There are both studies long before the pandemic and recent studies during the pandemic that clearly highlight the positive role of religion and spirituality in people’s mental health. This is not something new; it is well-established in psychological science. I could go on for a long time about this, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll highlight church attendance, since that was most disrupted during the pandemic, and people felt the most let down by not being able to go to church on Sunday. 

We’re all in this together, and as a Catholic community, we can provide such grace to each other through empathy, kindness, and connection.

Harvard University has this diamond-in-the-rough research center called the Human Flourishing Program (HFP). HFP researchers have published a series of very rigorous, statistically sound studies with large sample sizes that highlight the very specific and unique role that church attendance has in mental health—such as increasing happiness, life satisfaction, meaning and purpose, and enhancing close relationships—and physical health, with church attendance being a protective factor against mortality causes, drinking, and smoking. 

So, to connect some dots, many of the vulnerabilities and stressors brought on over the past few years that I mentioned can be buffered against through resilience found in going to church at least once a week. 

In doing this research, I was reminded of something a good priest friend of mine, Fr. Robert Connelly, once told me. He said, “Anthony, good psychology is good theology and bad psychology is bad theology.” To his point, I believe that those Harvard studies are “good psychology.” Very sound methodology, advanced statistics, large sample sizes, and so on. The Church teaches good theology, which is that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our lives that we receive at the Mass. To take away the source and summit of our lives naturally takes away our psychological joy and happiness. And naturally, to regularly participate in the “source and summit” would be to experience psychological joy and happiness.  Good theology is good psychology. Thanks, Fr. Connelly! 

With that said, let’s go back in time to March 2020. We lacked a lot of knowledge about COVID-19, and there was tremendous fear, confusion, and uncertainty. I don’t blame Church leaders for making decisions that were based on the best available information at the time, within the context of government regulations and medical advice.

If we’re ever faced with such a situation again—and hopefully we are not—I would ardently urge Church leaders to base decisions on medical science that promotes the health of the whole person: body, mind, spirit, and psychology. 

Mark Bradford: How has the Church responded to the current mental health crisis? Are there programs in various dioceses that are exemplary in terms of assisting Catholics in crisis to find ways to better health?

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Anthony Isacco: The Church has responded in different ways. First, the USCCB has recently launched a mental health campaign this October, which brings much needed awareness of mental health challenges to Catholics. I encourage people to read the full USCCB statement, which can be found here. I am grateful for the USCCB leadership on this matter, and I am hopeful that good fruits will come from the initiative.  

In my research, I was very pleased to learn that some dioceses and parishes have started Mental Health Ministries. These are great initial responses to the mental health crisis, and I am very curious to see what programs, outreach, and fruits come from such ministries. But starting an official diocesan and parish ministry signals to people that the issue/problem/population is legitimate and in need of support and resources.

I encourage people to check out some of these dioceses that have started mental health ministries, such as the Dioceses of Phoenix, St. Cloud (MN), Orange (CA), and San Diego. Perhaps other dioceses can learn what is working in these start-up ministries and how such efforts can be coordinated.

I also think it is very important to highlight some other responses to the mental health crisis from universities and educational institutions and lay Catholics. (Full disclosure: I recorded talks with Hallow, but I do not have any financial interest in any of these listed resources or institutions. I just think they are doing good work in this area.) 

First, Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life launched a new initiative this past year called the Fiat Program on Faith and Mental Health, which has a mission to support the Church in responding to mental health needs.   

The Hallow app has a Mental Health Series of short talks and experiential exercises from Catholic mental health professionals that integrate the faith with mental health issues. Topics covered include addictions, stress and anxiety, relationships, and healing, among others.

The Saint Luke Institute has an educational catalog of numerous webinars intended specifically for Catholic priests, deacons, women religious, and those in formation such as seminarians, diaconal candidates, and religious. Topics covered include perfectionism, stress management, coping with anxiety, alcoholism, etc. 

These are just a few examples of how the universal Church has been and is continuing to respond to the mental health crisis. I have been encouraged and inspired by such efforts, and it really speaks to the continued need among the faithful. 

Mark Bradford: Lastly, if someone feels like they need help but are struggling to find a good Catholic mental health professional, are there resources you could refer them to?

Anthony Isacco: Yes, absolutely. First, there are a few search tools that are free and easily accessible:

Catholic Psychotherapy Association (CPA) is an international group of mental health professionals that intentionally work to integrate the faith into their clinical practice. The website has a “Find a Therapist” search engine of CPA members. You can search by city, state, services provided, and more.    

Catholic Therapists is another good search engine specifically for mental health professionals that are explicitly Catholic in their clinical practice. You can search by name, state.

Psychology Today is a broader search engine, inclusive of faith-based and secular mental health professionals. However, you can still search by religious/spiritual preferences, health insurance, location, presenting concerns.

Second, many good mental health professionals have a waitlist, which can be frustrating. You muster up enough courage and energy to call and talk to someone and they tell you to wait for three to six months. You can certainly ask for a referral to another professional that has no waitlist or a shorter waitlist.  

Finally, I’d also encourage people looking for a good Catholic mental health professional to ask some friends, family members, and/or their parish priest. Word of mouth referrals are often the best. Talking about your struggles with someone else can destigmatize the concern and build natural support. We’re all in this together, and as a Catholic community, we can provide such grace to each other through empathy, kindness, and connection.