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Catholics work to bring mental illness out of shadows

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, August 12, 2012

On a Tuesday morning in May dozens gathered at Queen of All Saints Basilica, 6280 N. Sauganash Ave., for the annual Feast of St. Dymphna.

A 10-year-old tradition at the North Side church supported by both the St. Dymphna Society Foundation as well as the Archdiocesan Commission on Mental Illness, the Mass shines light on a segment of society too often confined to the shadows — those battling a range of mental health issues as diverse as depression and schizophrenia.

“People take comfort in knowing that they’re not alone in facing these issues,” said Jim Weber, who co-founded the St. Dymphna Society nearly two decades ago alongside his wife, Shirley.

After the Webers’ daughter was diagnosed with a mental illness in the early 1990s, the couple endured an exhaustive journey learning where to turn and what to do. They formed a mental illness support group at Queen of All Saints and later established the St. Dymphna Society as a resource — both practical and spiritual — for others.

Battling the stigma

Tom Lambert, deacon at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 690 W. Belmont Ave., calls mental illness a “no casserole” illness. While well-intentioned friends and neighbors are often quick to lend a meal or support when a physical ailment strikes a family, few lend that same support when an individual lands in a psychiatric hospital.

“The needs of a family affected by mental illness are the same as those needed by those encountering physical challenges — and that’s prayer and support,” said Lambert, whose oldest daughter has a mental illness.

Lambert said it’s important that all Christians, particularly those impacted by mental illness, reject viewing the disease as a black mark or punishment.

“God wants to walk with us,” said Lambert, who offered the sermon at the Feast of St. Dymphna Mass and has been one of the principal mental health advocates within the archdiocese.

While the medical community plays a leading role in combating mental illness, the spiritual component cannot be overlooked; in fact, scientific leaders have increasingly promoted the role of faith in recovery.

When mental illness hit the Webers, the family mixed social and medical interventions alongside spiritual care, confident that faith would deliver a positive impact.

“Faith’s important to handle any crisis and to help those struggling with mental illness understand that they’re not being punished by God,” Shirley Weber said.

Prayer and support

Queen of All Saints pastor Msgr. John Pollard, a supporter of the St. Dymphna Society’s work, says it’s natural for the church to reach out to anyone in need, including those with mental illnesses.

“We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, so it’s important to let people who feel they’re on the margins know that they’re actually at the center of the church’s ministry of care,” Pollard said.

Such is certainly the mission of many Catholics across the Chicago area.

At St. Thomas of Villanova in Palatine, Deacon Rich Willer oversees a mental health ministry that includes a partnership with the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights as well as monthly meetings that provide education, resources and support. Willer’s team has also supported efforts for the construction of a 39-unit apartment building in Mount Prospect that will house mentally ill and provide job and health care support.

“Between job placement, utilizing federal programs and local resources, we’re trying as best we can to uncover and inform so that families can get the help they need,” said Willer, who breeds awareness with a traveling presentation on mental illness to local churches of all denominations.

As co-chair of the Archdiocesan Commission on Mental Illness, Lambert helps direct a twice-monthly faith and fellowship outreach program at St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy in Oak Park.

The Webers, meanwhile, remain eager to promote a more empathetic mindset and serve as a resource to others through the St. Dymphna Society.

“Mental illness is not a black hole,” Jim Weber asserted. “Hope is available and recovery is an option.”