Raising awareness of mental illness focus of church commission

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, June 12, 2016

When was the last time you heard a homily about mental illness?

For most people, never, said Deacon Tom Lambert, one of the co-chairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Commission on Mental Illness. It’s just not something the church spends much time talking about.

Lambert, who also on staff at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, 708 W. Belmont Ave., said that’s a shame, because nearly one in five people in the United States will suffer from a mental illness each year. One in 24 will suffer from mental illness that is severe and persistent.

“If you think that all of those people have families and have friends, it really affects everybody,” Lambert said.

It affects everybody, but very few people talk about it because of the stigma associated with mental illness, Lambert said.

Connie Rakitan, the other commission co-chair, said the best way to reduce stigma is to bring the discussion of mental illness out in the open.

The commission can offer resources for parishes who want to be more welcoming to people with mental illnesses and their families.

“What we’re trying to do is advocate for the pastoral care of people with mental illness,” Lambert said. “What we would like to see is an understanding and awareness of what the person is going through and what their family is going through.”

That includes understanding that for many people, just coming to church can be difficult because they fear being judged for their illness.

Not all accessibility issues are about ramps, Lambert said.

“Do you know how imposing those doors can be?” he said. “We have to train our ushers and our secretaries. How do we make people feel welcome? How do we keep those doors open to them?”

Something as simple as printing articles about mental health and mental illness in the parish bulletin can send a message that mental illness isn’t a taboo topic.

Lambert, who has an adult daughter with mental illness, has been an active member of the archdiocesan commission since it started in the early 1990s.

Members of the commission have offered workshops for parishes, for deacons and their wives, for religious men and women, for hospital chaplains and for other groups both in the archdiocese and elsewhere.

“A lot of people feel ill-equipped and don’t know what to do,” Rakitan said. “Knowing what to do isn’t that hard. People need to feel empowered and equipped.”

To that end, Lambert and Deacon Dan Welter, also a member of the commission, are working to get “Mental Health: A Guide for Faith Leaders” distributed to every parish.

The booklet, published by the American Psychiatric Foundation, offers a quick overview of what mental illness is, some common mental illnesses and guidelines for how to refer people for help.

“It’s like when someone in a parish has cancer,” Lambert said. “You don’t expect the pastor to be an oncologist, but you do want people in the parish to walk with that person.”

Catholic Charities does offer direct services to people with mental illness, with counseling available at many parish and other sites throughout Cook and Lake counties, said Pam Davis, director of counseling services. Sites range from Mundelein Seminary in Lake County to St. Stephen Deacon and Martyr in Tinley park, with several locations in Chicago.

Catholic Charities accepts Medicaid and private insurance and discounts counseling services when necessary, she said. No one is turned away for financial reasons.

The agency also has programs that work with substance abuse and with people experiencing domestic violence, both situations that are often intertwined with mental health issues, and some programs also include case management to help clients access all the help they need.

“Everything interfaces with everything else,” Davis said.

The counseling services department also has staff members who will do presentations for parishes or parish staff members about mental illness, she said.

Rakitan has run the “Faith and Fellowship” group for people with mental illness at St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy Parish in Oak Park since 1979. The group provides a prayerful space for people where they don’t feel alone. It’s especially valuable for people who find attending church to be overwhelming, she said.

“It gives people an opportunity to pray together with other people with like interests and like needs,” she said. “It’s a place where they are OK and welcomed.”

While the members of the group need not be Catholic, most of the volunteers who help run the group are, Rakitan said.

In her experience, some parishes have done a better job welcoming people with mental illness. It’s a matter of accepting people who might need to behave differently — maybe moving around more, or holding or wearing a special object to feel secure — without judging them as being less than other parishioners.

It doesn’t mean tolerating inappropriate or wildly disruptive behavior, she said, but it does mean treating people with respect even if they must be redirected.

“I think the church can just be a little more compassionate to people who are different,” Rakitan said.

That is, after all, not only what Jesus would do, but what the Gospels say Jesus did, Welter said.

“At the time, people with all kinds of illnesses were considered unclean and they couldn’t worship in the temple, so Jesus went out to them.” Welter said.

In addition to being a pastoral issue, Lambert noted that mental health is also a justice issue.

“Because of the stigma, people with mental illnesses are not getting the help they need,” Lambert said.

Because people with mental illnesses have no political clout, services for them are among the first cut in any budget crisis, and, given the situation in Illinois, many service providers that were counting on state funding have not been paid, he said.


  • catholic charities
  • st. catherine of siena-st. lucy parish
  • our lady of mount carmel
  • mental illness

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