When we think of ministry, we often categorize it as liturgical, pro-life or social justice. However, a relatively recent ministry that encompasses all three focuses on accompanying our fellow Catholics who live with mental illness, and their families. Because the thought of mental illness often brings to mind professionals who are licensed to treat people, we feel inadequate to the task. Yet this is a ministry we all can do, because the critical task is listening and being present to accompany someone who is struggling.
To learn more about mental health ministry at the parish and diocesan levels, I was among the more than 100 lay people, clergy and religious from across the country who attended “Building a Culture of Community: Equipping Leaders for Mental Health Ministry” in Los Altos, Calif., May 19-21. Bishop John Dolan of San Diego opened the conference, sharing his experience of the suicide deaths of some of his family members, and the impact of this on him and his family.
Bishop Dolan invited participants to consider ways for parishes and communities to join through prayer and accompaniment those who live with struggles and mental health challenges. He reminded us that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, with a certain unity and communion with God.
“The French Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel insists there is a certain ‘witness’ imbedded in our human essence,” Bishop Dolan said. “If in the beginning was the Word and the Word was WITH God and the Word WAS God, we must conclude that to be made in God’s image means that, as Marcell says, ‘to be is to be with.’ Anything less is missing the mark.”
Dolan noted that while churches have made strides in addressing the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we haven’t yet extended the welcome to all with mental illness, or offered our accompaniment to those living in the peripheries or extremities.
Bishop Dolan also quoted from “Hope and Healing: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of California on Caring for Those Who Suffer from Mental Illness.” This pastoral letter, published in 2018, offers theological and practical points for us to respond to with embrace, compassion, love and prayer “to relieve unnecessary pain and also make our parishes more welcoming and Spirit-filled communities.”
The role of a mental health ministry team is to 1) provide spiritual companionship, to listen and enter into relationships; 2) provide practical supports and resources; and 3) provide educational opportunities for mental health awareness to the parish and community. Mental health ministry is not about solving someone’s problems, but rather listening and accompanying them as they journey. The ministry teams receive training in areas such as basic mental illness diagnoses, dementia, communication, spiritual guidance, caregiver support, relationships and boundaries, confidentiality and safety.
At the conference, representatives of parishes with active mental health ministry teams shared their struggles, offering lessons learned to the attendees. Speakers noted that listening and accompanying doesn’t mean a minister needed to know everything, but could use community resources that are not Catholic, such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), community, state and national hotlines, AFSP (the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention), support groups and other faith-based services.
Speakers presented data and facts of mental illness, sharing what puts individuals at greater risk, including childhood experience, domestic violence, violence and trauma. They also noted the factors that are protective, build resilience and offer hope. Richard Collyer of the Office of Marriage and Family Life of the Archdiocese of San Francisco discussed how the archdiocese created a framework for parishes and provides support to the parishes.
One of the plenary speakers, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, noted that too often we fail to understand mental fragility, and blame individuals for their mental struggles. He pointed out that we would never blame someone for having cancer, but we urge those struggling with mental illness to “get over it,” or tell them that things will be fine.
For someone involved in mental health ministry, “The soul is not to be saved – the Christian thought; or to be fixed – the psychological thought; but rather the soul is to be listened to,” Fr. Rolheiser said.
Fr. Fred Cabras, OFM Cap. explained that the gift of accompaniment in mental health ministry is about education, presence and being stigma-free, none of which requires one to be a licensed clinician. Ministers are called to learn about mental illness, to be present with people, and be empathetic and compassionate listeners. Ministers must learn to not judge and stigmatize others. We must accept who they are, where they are and where they are going.
Maribel Rodriguez Laguna, LCSW of Dallas reminded the participants that it is “better to be loved than helped.” Each of us want to be loved, to be cared for, and mental health ministry is walking with people in a loving way.
As the conference ended, Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, and conference sponsor, noted that “It is imperative that the Church respond to the needs of the people. There is much work to be done, and can be done, to welcome and support Catholics with mental illness on their journey.”
Listen. Love. Empathy. Accompaniment. This is the purpose of mental health ministry. If you and your parish want to learn more, see the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministries at https://catholicmhm.org/.
Carol Ruddell is a St. Thomas More parishioner and State of Utah administrator for suicide prevention.