Denver Newsroom, Sep 24, 2022 / 09:00 am (CNA).
Catholics who struggle with mental illness, and their loved ones who want to help them, will soon find more formal support in the Phoenix Diocese. Bishop John Dolan has announced the launch of an office dedicated to Catholic mental health ministry.
“There are lots of people who are dealing with loved ones who are in crisis,” Dolan told CNA Sept. 19. “It’s a quiet work of charity, and obviously they need all the help they can get.”
The bishop hopes the new office will “let people know that they’re not alone when it comes to mental health.” He emphasized the need to help people talk and communicate about mental illness.
Dolan announced the office on Sept. 4 at Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral during a Mass of Remembrance for those who died by suicide, the diocesan newspaper The Catholic Sun reported.
During the Mass, the bishop led a procession of clergy. Joined by others in the congregation, they placed carnations in baskets in front of a shrine at the cathedral. Each carnation represented a person who died by suicide. The diocese had solicited suicide victims’ names to be commemorated during the Mass and had received more than 1,200.
The issue is personal for the new bishop. In a video message “Sharing My Story: A Life Changed by Suicide,” posted to the diocese’s YouTube channel, Dolan recounted how his family lost an older brother, a sister, and her husband to suicide.
“Losing a loved one is very, very hard. When we lose a loved one through suicide, it’s doubly difficult,” Dolan said in the video. “I had support from the Church but not ongoing support, real opportunities to continue to talk about it. I buried so much that I just never really looked into growing as I should have grown.”
Dolan, who was installed as bishop of Phoenix on Aug. 2, has co-edited a pastoral handbook, “Responding to Suicide.”
Mental illness is relatively common. The National Institutes for Mental Health says that as of 2020, nearly one in five U.S. adults — about 53 million people — were living with a mental illness. An estimated 14.2 million U.S. adults — 5.6% of the adult population — suffer from a severe mental illness. Of these, only 65% received mental health treatment in the previous year.
The planned focus of the Office for Catholic Mental Health Ministry includes mental health education for clergy and laity. The office aims to provide opportunities for Catholics to find support in accompanying friends and loved ones who struggle with mental illness.
The new office will provide priests with a mental health “first-aid kit” to help them advise or respond to those in need, Dolan said.
The educational aspect will aim to help clergy and religious know more about mental health and get basic training “so that they don’t jump to conclusions and kind of over-spiritualize behavior,” Dolan said. This educational effort should help inculcate in clergy “a broad view of what mental health is” so that they don’t “try to solve the issues on their own.”
Education will come through the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. The council, founded in 1969, is an advocacy and educational group that represents more than 3,100 mental health and substance use treatment organizations.
“They basically try to train them about what to expect and what to look for,” Dolan said. “It’s strictly clinical in education; it doesn’t focus on any of the spiritual aspects.”
The organization’s Mental Health First Aid program has trained more than 2.6 million people in the U.S. “to identify, understand, and respond to signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use challenges.” The training covers common signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and substance use challenges, how to interact with a person in crisis, and how to connect a person with help. It also includes content on trauma, substance use, and self-care.
The psychological sciences have a role to play in Catholic thought and practice, Dolan said.
“We see the science of psychology and psychiatry as a valued gift to our human person. We should not shy away from that,” he told CNA.
The aim is not to increase the burdens on priests. Rather, they will have a resource to which they can direct those in need. Dolan aims to have locations in each of the diocese’s 15 deaneries for people suffering from mental health problems, behavioral issues, trauma, or bereavement.
Dolan said he is not yet familiar with the particulars of how the diocese’s current seminarians are being prepared.
Speaking generally of seminarians, he said that “counseling is perhaps one aspect of their training” and future priests receive only “little samplings” of psychology unless they are taking classes on the subject in their university or seminary.
A 2016 document from the Dicastery for the Clergy, “Ratio Fundamentalis,” discusses the formation of seminarians. It notes that the “useful contribution” of psychology to pastoral theology will benefit seminarians’ education as future pastors.
The Office for Catholic Mental Health Ministry will also have an advocacy role. It will seek to improve government policy and increase funding that addresses mental health. Dolan said this will help “to make sure that mental health is at the front of all of our conversations, particularly as we’re seeing more and more people on the streets with mental health disorders.”
According to the bishop, there are a “whole host of reasons” why some homeless people live on the streets, including trauma, mental disorders, or drug use disorders. The simple situation of experiencing homelessness causes additional anxiety and mental problems, he added.
The office, set to open in January 2023, has financial support from the Phoenix-based Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. Those responsible for organizing the new office are Dr. Anne Vargas-Leveriza of the diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection and Dr. Maria Chavira, the diocese’s chancellor.
Dolan, a former auxiliary bishop of San Diego, noted previous Catholic statements like the California bishops’ 2018 letter on caring for those who suffer from mental health.
He said Catholic dioceses in San Diego, San Francisco, and Orange are already working to address mental health, often under the efforts of other diocesan departments. He noted the work of the University of San Diego-based Catholic Institute for Mental Health Ministry, which seeks to train mental health ministry leaders at the diocesan and parish level across the U.S.
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