May 10 event aims to end stigma of mental illness - Parishes, schools, individuals, groups invited to host conversations

By Joyce Duriga
Sunday, April 17, 2016

While Peter O’Brien Jr. died of a ruptured pancreas in 2012 as a result of alcohol abuse, his father believes the stigma surrounding his schizophrenia contributed to his early death.

“As we progressed toward diagnosis my son told me on countless occasions that he didn’t want to die a mental patient. He’d rather die an alcoholic or a drug user because no one wants to be with somebody mentally ill,” said Peter O’Brien Sr., owner of O’Brien’s Restaurant and Bar in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood and president of MADO Healthcare Centers. He is a parishioner at Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph Parish in Chicago.

“If we could lessen the stigma, it would give somebody else the chance to survive mental illness,” he said.

In an effort to do that, the Archdiocese of Chicago is partnering with the Kennedy Forum of Illinois in inviting parishes, schools and all Catholics to host “On the Table” discussions about mental health and addiction on May 10. According to forum statistics, three out of 10 Illinois adults report being affected by mental health conditions, either themselves or someone in their household.

O’Brien started the Illinois forum in 2014. It is an offshoot of the national Kennedy Forum in Boston founded by New Hampshire Rep. Patrick Kennedy in 2013 as a way to raise awareness about mental illness and addiction. Kennedy suffers from bipolar disorder and substance addiction, which caused him to leave Congress.

Archbishop Cupich delivered the keynote at last year’s national gathering of the forum and is on the leadership council for the Kennedy Forum of Illinois. Around that time the archbishop appointed Father Scott Donahue, president and CEO of Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, his liaison to groups within the archdiocese and the Chicago area on issues related to mental health.

Ending the stigma surrounding mental illness is definitely a personal effort on O’Brien’s part. Peter Jr.’s illness became obvious when he returned home from college after his 19th birthday.

“We noticed that his focus was different. That he was reclusive,” O’Brien said.

After Peter Jr. was diagnosed with schizophrenia, many of his friends weren’t around for him. Part of the stigma is that friends and relatives often don’t understand the illness and are afraid or ashamed of the sufferer.

His son was lost, so Peter Sr. called his friend Donahue, and asked for help. The priest told him to send him to Mercy Home, where he gave the young man a job.

During that time at Mercy Home, Peter Jr. felt accepted and his illness wasn’t something he was ashamed of. That showed his father that if more people understood and accepted mental illness, the stigma and pain could be reduced and more people could be helped.

Unfortunately, Peter Jr. lost his battle with mental illness and addiction but his death convinced O’Brien and his family they had to do something to help others, not just the sufferers but the families too.

“It truly is an illness that affects the family as well,” O’Brien said.

People can manage mental illness and be successful in life using the medicine and therapy available but the stigma surrounding the illness stops many from reaching out, O’Brien said.

The father of four discovered the Kennedy Forum when saw Patrick Kennedy on a talk show discussing the issues of mental illness and substance abuse. Often people with addictions suffer from some sort of mental illness.

“When I saw all that, when I saw how he could make a difference, I knew that if Peter was alive it could have made a difference in his life so it can make a difference in other people’s lives who are still alive,” O’Brien said.

He picked up the phone and called Chris Kennedy, past-president of the Chicago-based Merchandise Mart Properties, and asked to meet his cousin, Patrick. That meeting happened and Patrick Kennedy agreed that the Kennedy Forum could come to Illinois.

“The first thing is to lessen the stigma so that we can get to the root of acceptance and then begin to eradicate this illness,” O’Brien said.

That’s the goal of the “On the Table” discussions, which are also being supported by the Chicago Community Trust. Discussions can take place anywhere and usually involve about 12 people. The Kennedy Forum can help people set up the conversations and offers a free tool kit for those hosting conversations, which includes an invitation template, topics to discuss and tips on how to host the conversations. They will also help groups find facilitators if needed.

Helping people with mental illness and reducing its stigma goes right to the heart of the Gospel, Donahue told the Catholic New World.

“If you go to the person of Jesus, what did he do? He reached out to those who were marginalized, those who were not understood, those who people feared because of lack of understanding,” Donahue said. “What he brought was hope, healing and compassion.”

By modeling Jesus Catholics can help reduce the stigma and help those who suffer, he said.

“The suffering is the larger community — it’s the family, the family system, the person who lives with the illness. We certainly see that here at Mercy Home,” he said.

As believers in Christ we have to be people of compassion and bring healing and hope to others, he said.

“There’s so much fear, what we don’t understand we fear and we kind of avoid,” Donahue said. “What did Jesus do in the face of fear? He looked into the face of fear and embraced it and brought understanding to it and healing.”

For more information or to register to host a discussion contact James Burns at James@ or 312- 450-3456 or visit


  • mercy home for boys and girls
  • mental illness
  • addiction
  • kennedy forum

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