New ministry focuses on mental health

Friday 03 June 2022

By special at the Intermountain Catholic

When we think of ministry, we often categorize it as liturgical, pro-life, or social justice. However, a relatively new ministry that encompasses all three focuses on accompanying our fellow Catholics living with mental illness and their families. Because the thought of mental illness often conjures up professionals who are licensed to treat people, we feel unfit for the job. However, it is a ministry that we can all do, because the essential task is to listen and to be present to accompany someone who is in difficulty.

To learn more about mental health ministry at the parish and diocesan levels, I was among more than 100 lay, clergy, and religious from across the country who participated in “Building a Culture of Community: Equipping Leaders for the Department of Mental Health” in Los Altos, California, May 19-21. Bishop John Dolan of San Diego opened the conference, sharing his experience of the suicide deaths of some family members, and the impact of this on him and his family.

Bishop Dolan invited participants to reflect on ways for parishes and communities to join in prayer and accompaniment to those living with mental health struggles and issues. He reminded us that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, with a certain unity and fellowship with God.

“French Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel insists that there is a certain ‘witness’ embedded in our human essence,” Bishop Dolan said. “If in the beginning was the Word and the Word was WITH God and the Word WAS God, we must conclude that to be made in the image of God means that, as Marcell says, ‘to be is to be with ‘. Anything less misses the mark.

Dolan noted that while churches have made progress in meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we have not yet expanded the welcome to all people with mental illness, nor offered our accompaniment to those who live in the peripheries or extremities.

Bishop Dolan also quoted “Hope and Healing: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of California on Caring for Those Suffering from Mental Illness.” This pastoral letter, published in 2018, offers theological and practical points to which we must respond with embrace, compassion, love and prayer “to relieve unnecessary pain and also make our parishes more welcoming and Spirit-filled communities.”

The role of a mental health ministry team is to 1) provide spiritual companionship, listening, and relationship; 2) provide practical materials and resources; and 3) providing mental health awareness educational opportunities to the parish and community. The ministry of mental health is not about solving someone’s problems, but rather about listening to them and accompanying them on their journey. Ministry teams receive training in areas such as basic mental illness diagnoses, dementia, communication, spiritual guidance, caregiver support, relationships and boundaries, confidentiality and safety.

At the conference, representatives from parishes with active mental health ministry teams shared their struggles, offering lessons learned to attendees. Speakers noted that listening and accompanying does not mean a minister has to know everything, but can use community resources that are not Catholic, such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), community helplines, state and national, AFSP (the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), support groups and other faith-based services.

Speakers presented data and facts about mental illness, sharing what puts individuals at greater risk, including childhood experience, domestic abuse, abuse and trauma. They also noted factors that are protective, build resilience, and offer hope. Richard Collyer of the Office of Marriage and Family Life of the Archdiocese of San Francisco explained how the Archdiocese has created a framework for parishes and provides support to parishes.

One of the plenary speakers, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, noted that too often we fail to understand mental frailty and blame individuals for their mental struggles. He stressed that we would never blame someone for having cancer, but we urge people struggling with mental illness to ‘get over it’ or tell them it will be okay.

For someone involved in mental health ministry, “The soul is not to be saved – Christian thinking; or to fix – the psychological thought; but rather the soul must be listened to”, the Father. Rollheiser said.

Pr. Fred Cabras, OFM Cap. explained that the accompanying gift in the ministry of mental health is about education, presence and absence of stigma, which does not require one to be a licensed clinician. Ministers are called to learn about mental illness, to be present with people, and to be empathetic and compassionate listeners. Ministers must learn not to judge and stigmatize others. We have to accept who they are, where they are and where they are going.

Maribel Rodriguez Laguna, LCSW of Dallas reminded attendees that it is “better to be loved than helped”. Each of us wants to be loved, to be cared for, and the Ministry of Mental Health works with people in a loving way.

At the end of the conference, Charleen Katra, Executive Director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and Conference Patron, said, “It is imperative that the Church respond to the needs of the people. There is much work to be done, and can be done, to welcome and support Catholics with mental illness on their journey.

Listen. To like. Empathy. Accompaniement. This is the goal of the Ministry of Mental Health. If you and your parish would like to learn more, check out the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministries at https://catholicmhm.org/.

Carol Ruddell is a St. Thomas More parishioner and Utah State Administrator for Suicide Prevention.

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