Pope In Therapy: Why Italy Won't Face COVID's Mental Health Toll
Italy is once again murmuring about how Pope Francis was in therapy while serving as a priest in Argentina. It's just another sign of Italians' tendency to live in denial about hard questions around mental health.
ROME — Pope Francis was once in therapy, and in the last few days, this was considered important news in the Italian media. It really isn't. Four years have passed since the man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, first revealed that he needed mental health while serving as a cleric in his native Argentina, where the use of therapy and psychologists is much more culturally accepted than in Italy. The trauma of the 1970s and 1980s, when the military dictatorship and the trail of 30,000 forcibly disappeared people created deep personal and collective wounds. In the following years, nobody thought they could face them alone, not even a Provincial Superior of the Jesuits, as Bergoglio was when he began therapy.
What is striking, however, is that the question of the pope's mental health is coming back to the fore just now in Italy, at a time in which mental health promises to be one of the most catastrophic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic — and, unfortunately, one of the most neglected ones. The government's emergency measures completely ignored the mental health toll of the pandemic, especially among the younger generations, unlike what has happened in other European countries.
In France, where the number of people resorting to therapy has increased by 40% in 2020, Emmanuel Macron announced that, as long as the state of emergency lasts, the health system will guarantee free access to 10 hours of mental health support for everyone between the ages of 3 and 17. Here, the alarm sounded by Italian psychiatrists has remained unheard. They denounced the invisible iceberg of the mental health toll of the pandemic, saying that in the next few months they expect at least 800,000 new cases of depression among the infected and their relatives, which means that it could happen to anyone. Amid the refrain that "everything will be fine," ubiquitous in Italy during the pandemic, we set out to deny our traumas from the very beginning.
In 2011, Daniele Giglioli wrote a book titled Senza trauma ("Without Trauma"), in which he analyzed a generation of writers who, because they hadn't experienced any real trauma to draw from in their narratives, were willing to invent it and even consider the absence of trauma as ... traumatic. Today trauma — understood as an event that breaks the hinges of normality in a lightning-fast manner — undoubtedly exists. It is a consequence of the revelation of an unknown and invisible enemy, of the fear of dying and seeing someone die, of the failure to manage mourning in a context in which the ritual has been suspended. And above all, it is a fear of the imposed, and in many cases, radical change of daily life habits, study and relationships.
In Catholic countries, therapists and priests compete with each other.
But there is more. Wars begin and end, natural disasters have reconstruction as their epilogue and bloody events are exceptional by definition, but as days go by, the change caused by the pandemic looks more and more like a new normal. How long will "trauma" be enough to define what we're going through, and to define us?
In the search for this answer, remembering that even the pope 50 years ago sought help from a specialist takes on the weight of a symbolic event, full of collective and in many ways revolutionary meanings. For a long time, in Catholic countries like Italy, therapists next to the couch and the priests in confessionals were competing with each other, from antithetical presuppositions. Should we deal with God or with the ego? Do we examine our conscience or the unconscious? Do we preserve our sense of guilt as a precious sign of alarm, or focus on behaviors with a view to transformation?
Italy, Catholic in every sense of the term, is a land specialized in collective denial, not in raising awareness, and the exhortation to forgive personal sins has often been paired with the convenient omission of community sins. COVID-19, as a trigger for a new normal, has the potential to break the pathological mechanism of denial and oblivion, offering us a precious opportunity to move from the game of assigning blame to the taking of responsibility.