Church must care for those with mental illness, bishops say

By Catholic News Service
Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A technician stocks a pharmacy in Berea, Ky., Feb. 7. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and to mark the month, the California Catholic Conference issued a pastoral letter outlining ways the church could do a better job of serving people who struggle with mental illness. (CNS photo/Bryan Woolston, Reuters)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CNS) -- California's Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter outlining ways the church could do a better job of serving those who struggle with mental illness, stressing that it is an "essential part of the pastoral care of the church."

The letter, "Hope and Healing," was published in English, Spanish and Vietnamese online on the website of the California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's bishops, May 1, the start of the Mental Health Awareness Month.

It said all Catholics are "called to provide hope and healing to others" and in recognizing that every human life is sacred, they should not only "attend to those in our midst who suffer in body or mind" but also work with families, mental health professionals, community organizations and all individuals and institutions engaged in such work.

The bishops pointed out that often people with mental illness suffer in silence in contrast with those who have a medical illness and usually receive an outpouring of sympathy and support from their parish and community.

"This should not be so in our civic communities and cannot be so in our Catholic communities. Those living with a mental illness should never bear these burdens alone, nor should their families who struggle heroically to assist their loved ones," the letter said, emphasizing that Christians must "encounter them, accompany them, comfort them and help bear their burdens in solidarity with them -- offering our understanding, prayers and tangible and ongoing assistance."

The California bishops also identified the scope and burden of mental illness today, noting that the National Institute of Mental Health says one in five adults in the U.S. suffered from a mental disorder over the last year and nearly 10 million American adults -- about one in 25 -- have a mental illness that is severe enough to cause serious functional impairment. And 20 percent of adolescents currently have, or previously had, a seriously debilitating mental disorder, according to the institute.

They point out the increase of depression and anxiety for young people, the rise in suicides from men and women in nearly every age group, the number of drug overdoses and alcohol-related death, and the current opioid crisis.

They note that the nation's jails and homeless populations are filled with people suffering from mental illness, which they called "unacceptable."

"These crises of our time represent an urgent call to all Catholics. We must respond," the bishop letter said.

One response is not to stigmatize or judge those suffering a mental illness because it is "neither a moral failure nor a character defect" nor a "sign of insufficient faith or weakness of will."

The bishops also noted that Christian faith and religious practice "do not immunize a person against mental illness" noting that leaders and even saints "suffered from mental disorders or severe psychological wounds."

The suffering produced by mental illness is something that Catholics should have a distinctive understanding about, knowing that Catholics are not promised freedom from suffering or affliction and that spiritual practices "will not cure mental disorders or alleviate all emotional suffering," the bishops said.

What is needed to improve mental health care, the bishops said, is cooperation from church members and leaders, health care professionals and scientific researchers.

In response to those who say psychiatry or clinical psychology are not compatible with Catholic faith, the bishops said discernment is necessary and that "good science that recognizes the life and dignity of people and the Catholic faith are never at odds." They also pointed out that "medical science has discovered many useful treatments to help those with mental illness, and Catholics should welcome and make use of these -- including medications, psychotherapy and other medical interventions."

 But at the same time, Catholics struggling with mental illness or helping those with this should not "neglect the role of pastoral care and spiritual direction." The bishops note that the sacramental life of the church can "provide grace and spiritual strength."

They also acknowledged the increasing amount of medical research demonstrating health benefits of prayer and meditation, religious worship, active participation in faith-based activities, groups and communities, and cultivating Christian virtues like gratitude and forgiveness.

"These spiritual practices -- while they do not entirely prevent or cure mental illness -- can reduce the risk of mental health problems and can assist in recovery. Modern medicine is rediscovering that there is a deep connection between the body and the soul: What affects the one has profound effects on the other," they added.

The bishops' letter-- www.cacatholic.org/resources/mental-health -- also provides links to resources and programs that serve as models for parishes and communities which the bishops describe as "a good starting point."

They stressed that Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics "not to remain securely behind the doors of our parishes, but to reach out to everyone, especially those who are marginalized and forgotten" -- a call that must include people who suffer from severe and persistent mental illnesses. "For them, our communities and parishes should be places of refuge and healing, not places of rejection or judgment," the bishops said.

They also said that outreach should be proactive rather than reactive and should make sure that those who need help are also resources for others.

Another solution is simply to get to know or befriend those struggling with mental illness, to listen to them, walk with them or pray with them.

"Prayer is a powerful source of healing and peace. Some parishes are teaching teams of people in their parishes to be available to pray with people: It can make a great difference when we move from praying for people to praying with them," the letter says.

The bishops said families who have experienced a suicide of a loved one also need help from their Catholic communities. They said the church "teaches that suicide is contrary to the will of God who gave us life," but at the same time it recognizes in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that "grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."

They also said those who lose a loved one to suicide need particular care and attention, often for considerable periods of time. "Catholics must convey to them that we are not afraid to open this difficult conversation, that they need not feel ashamed to discuss their profound anguish and loss," and parishioners and leaders must be "willing to walk this long road with suicide survivors, to help console them with our unconditional friendship and with sensitive pastoral care."

The letter ends with a message of hope saying the church "never abandons those who suffer from mental illness" and that in eternity with God "every beautiful thing in our lives that is now unfinished will be completed, all the good that is scattered will be gathered together, everything that is lost will be found, all hopes that are now thwarted will be realized and all that is broken will finally be restored."


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