Deacons start program to reduce stigma around mental illness

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Deacon Tom Lambert of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, 708 W. Belmont Ave., has done outreach around the topic of mental illness for many years, on both the local and national levels. (Karen Callaway/ Chicago Catholic)

A new program that launched in April at Holy Name Cathedral aims to both raise awareness of mental illness and reduce the stigma associated with it.

The program, sponsored by the archdiocesan Commission on Mental Illness, includes a series of five Tuesday evening meetings for the family members and loved ones of people with mental illness. Each of the scheduled meetings has someone speaking on an aspect of mental illness, especially as they apply to those who are accompanying people who have mental illness, said Deacon Dan Welter, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Welter said he wants families who are supporting and caring for people with mental illnesses to feel welcomed and supported in their church communities.

“We want people to come so they can be with people and not feel alone,” Welter said. “We’re trying to build a ministry of accompaniment.”

He likened it to Al-Anon, the group for family members of alcoholics. Like Al-Anon, he said, those participating in the meetings can expect confidentiality. They also don’t have to come to every meeting.

Welter, a deacon at Holy Name, helped start the initiative with Deacon Tom Lambert, a member of the archdiocese’s Commission on Mental Illness. The commission functions under the umbrella of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Vicar for the Diaconate Richard Hudzik gave his support, and several other deacons have gotten involved.

It makes sense for deacons to take the lead on the initiative, Welter said, since the ministry of deacons from the beginning has been to the marginalized.

Lambert said that the stigma of mental illness means that many people who suffer with it are isolated, and that extends to their families.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five people will have a mental illness in any given year, and for one in 25 people, it’s serious and persistent.

“Everybody who has a mental illness has a family, so that’s a lot of people in our parishes who are affected,” Lambert said.

Oftentimes, family members are afraid that no one wants to hear about their child with schizophrenia or their parent or spouse with severe depression.

“You know how we build ramps for people with wheelchairs?” Lambert said. “I talk about this being building ramps for the mind. We want to create a supportive place so that people can get spiritual comfort and healing.”

“We want to give people the knowledge that they are welcomed as part of the faith community,” Welter said. “So many of them don’t come to church. They’re embarrassed, they feel they’re not welcome. They feel God has abandoned them. Hopefully, the deacons by starting ministry to these people can make them feel that they are part of the faith community.”

With the information the deacons have brought together, they also can get connected to mental health resources in the community.

Once the original series of meetings at Holy Name Cathedral is done, the initiative will get started May 22 at St. Sabina. Lambert said he is planning to bring it to Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Belmont Avenue) and St. Benedict (Irving Park Road) in partnership, and other parishes are interested.

Several of the 18 people who came to the first meeting at Holy Name Cathedral April 3 were deacons who want to start similar programs in their parishes, Welter said.

“This would be the model,” Lambert said. “We hope it will be an archdiocese-wide program.”

As enthusiastic as organizers are, they may have to be persistent to get family members to come to meetings.

“It’s not something that family members readily turn out for,” Lambert said. “They are hesitant to come forward because the stigma is there.”

That stigma is one of the biggest barriers to people getting the help they need.

“Stigma causes isolation, even isolation from the faith community,” Lambert said.


  • deacons
  • mental illness
  • mental health

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