|Interview With Psychologist Ann Howe
ATLANTA, Georgia, 6 APRIL 2006 (ZENIT)
Many risk factors for
depression can also be valuable assets for personal and communal
spiritual growth, says a Catholic psychologist.
Dr. Ann Howe, a psychologist for 25 years, is the director of the
Archdiocese of Atlanta counseling center Village of St. Joseph
She shared her experiences with ZENIT on the significance of suffering
and depression in a person's psychological and spiritual flourishing.
Q: What is the general attitude of psychology toward the problem of
Howe: First of all, psychology would traditionally have avoided a word
such as "suffering."
Psychology has striven to present itself as a science and has distanced
itself from the humanities. Therefore, the language used by
psychologists shies away from words such as suffering which are
evocative and instead uses language which is precise and measurable.
Suffering can't be measured except through the lens of the person's
experience, and suffering can't be understood except through the eyes of
All that being said, let's assume that psychologists could agree about
what constitutes suffering. Let's say they agree that suffering, for
example, is measurable through self-report as "life distress" or some
such euphemism. Then, psychology's position would more than likely be
that suffering is bad in an absolute sense and should be eliminated
Some psychologists might take a more nuanced approach; for example, when
they could easily find positive consequences. Take homework: We know
most children don't like homework, and "suffer" with it, but we all
understand that some pain in this area can lead to positive results,
namely, increased knowledge.
Psychologists would then wonder about how to motivate someone to sustain
performance during a time of "suffering." Here, suffering is seen as a
means to an end.
But once again, suffering in and of itself would never be regarded as
having any positive benefits.
Q: How does a Catholic perspective on psychology change the
understanding of human suffering?
Howe: The Catholic position is quite different. When the supernatural
reality of who man is in relation to God is understood, suffering has to
be seen in a supernatural dimension.
As Catholics we understand that suffering can have many "positive"
functions. It is not only an opportunity to correct parts of our
character which need to be strengthened or put on a proper path, but it
can also be used to expiate sins, both personal and communal.
When we recognize the person as a son or daughter of God, and
acknowledge that God sent his only Son into human history for the
redemption of souls, we come to appreciate that suffering allows us to
be linked to Christ in the continuing work of bringing souls to the
Father through the action of the Holy Spirit.
As a psychologist working with clients, I seek to help alleviate
unnecessary suffering, or that which the individual has inflicted upon
himself or herself through bad choices. Many times difficult life
circumstances can cause a person to choose despair, to turn away from
Whatever the source of the suffering, however, God is the answer. The
psychologist mainly acts to support the client in their journey and also
remove the impediments to the person's growth toward happiness.
As a Catholic, I believe that happiness can only be found ultimately by
resting in God's love and obeying his commandments.
Q: What is the relationship between suffering and depression?
Howe: Depression is the result of life's seemingly impossible problems.
Every person faces challenges both external and internal. When there is
a problem that can't be fixed, the person, depending on their
temperament and the importance of the situation, will try to keep
solving the problem till things improve.
Depression is the result of a problem that can't be fixed. These
problems can be something external and beyond our control, like a
physical illness or natural disaster, or something buried deep inside
our emotions like an old hurt or loss.
Depression, in other words, is never meaningless. It has a context in
which it develops and has real consequences for the quality of the
person's life, especially their relationships.
When a person finds his or her way through depression, it can also
result in personal transformation and a deeper appreciation for life.
Q: What are the benefits of suffering from a psychological perspective?
Howe: Like all suffering, we can magnify our own distress by resisting
and pulling away from God.
It is often hard for the person to see that God's love is being shared
with them through the action of others, like family, friends, and
therapist. Good comes out of the person's suffering, by encouraging a
cleansing of old bad habits and the renewal of deeper bonds with others.
Depression and other forms of psychological pain make receiving and
giving love difficult, but God's love is always present and surrounding
Good also can come from suffering because the person is forced to
confront their helplessness in bringing about their own happiness. They
often discover for the first time that they truly are dependent in all
things on God's merciful care.
Q: For people who suffer from long-term depression, over the course of
their whole lives, how can they integrate it with their spiritual life?
Howe: Depression signifies a person who is restless for peace, joy and
the experience of love.
Depression can be viewed as a "trial" which challenges the individual to
know themselves, and to lovingly accept themselves and others.
Depression might never be conquered for some people, but it can be laid
at the foot of the cross, confident that God will put some good use to
Many depressed people are very sensitive and astute in their
observations of others; they can have much to offer others in the way of
empathy and compassion. Many depressed people are intellectual and
analytical, and can use their passion for answers to many good purposes.
In other words, many of the personality characteristics which can lead
someone to be vulnerable to depression can be valuable assets to the
community and to the spiritual life.
Q: Is it more beneficial then to work to alleviate the suffering of
others, or to help them accept their suffering?
Howe: Suffering is a fact of life, and life often holds more than most
people care to experience.
The answer to the question is that of course we should work to alleviate
suffering as a means to make God's loving presence known to others. Yet,
the question of acceptance must go hand in hand.
It is only by accepting the mystery of suffering as a consequence of the
human condition that we can trust God, trust one another, and trust in
the capacity that good truly will come out of difficult and painful