Pondering the Catholic Church’s Response to Mental Illness

This is a guest post by Rachel Chow.  Rachel is a Notre Dame graduate theology student, currently working on her Master of Theological Studies and working with CSPRI.


Last month, the New York State Catholic bishops issued a statement entitled, “’For IAm Lonely and Afflicted’: Toward a Just Response to the Needs of Mentally Ill Persons.”  The statement was a combination of facts about mental illness, policy proposals to the New York state legislature, and, most importantly, exhortations “to  every chaplain, every religious education director and Catholic school principal, and all others in positions of Church leadership at every level to welcome with openness and affection those men, women and children who are afflicted with any form of mental illness and to integrate them into the life of the Church to the fullest extent possible.”  I say that this last aspect, the call to compassion among Catholic leaders, the most significant facet of this document because it highlights the Church’s unique role in care for those with mental illnesses in our communities and our parishes.  It is both an acknowledgement of what the Church can and does do, and a recognition that the Church is called to do more.    

At the present, the Catholic Church provides aid to those with mental health needs through its diocesan Catholic Charities programs.  In the Diocese of Rockville Center in New York, for example, Catholics Charities offers outpatient and residential behavioral health services.  Some of these services differ from run-of-the-mill behavioral healthcare because of their focus on the homeless.  The mental health residential services, for example, are offered at no fee, rent is determined by ability to pay, and no one is turned away.

At the same time, the New York State Catholic bishops call our attention to the need for parish-based involvement with persons with mental illnesses, a need which often goes unfulfilled for a variety of reasons.  One frequent reason is the limited resources for church ministries.  This need to prioritize agenda items is, of course, the reality of most organizations, but another dynamic may be at work here.  Deacon Tom Lambert of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Chicago calls mental illness a “no-casserole” disease.  When his wife had open heart surgery, people brought food to their door to help them out.  When his daughter was diagnosed with a mental illness, no such outpouring of support was present.

Another reason for the dearth of mental health ministries in the parish community is lack of training for clergy members who encounter those in crisis on a regular basis.  A number of studies over the past two decades have shown that people with mental health diagnoses are more likely to seek help from clergy than psychologists and psychiatrists combined; yet surveys of clergy have shown that they often feel unequipped to deal with mental health issues, though they are willing to learn (see, for example, Andrew J. Weaver, Handbook of Religion and Mental Health, 1998, p. 350ff.).

All this is to say that Catholics cannot confine our ministry towards those with mental illnesses to behavioral health services in clinics and hospitals, or even in residential treatment facilities.  This may mean prioritizing stand-alone mental health ministries in our parishes and dioceses; it may mean providing priests with more in-depth training in counseling; but above all it means being present alongside those who suffer from mental illness.  The New York State Catholic bishops call our attention our Christian mandate to do so:

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.

Relieve the troubles of my heart, and free me from my anguish.

 (Ps 25: 16-17)

3 thoughts on “Pondering the Catholic Church’s Response to Mental Illness

  1. Thank you for highlighting this issue. I agree that more needs to be done at the local parish level concerning this issue, which raises two issues for me that Christian Smith has written about (my understanding of Smith anyway). Concerning youth ministry he notes how the Catholic church lacks an infrastructure to deal with this ministry more comprehensively. At diocesan and parish levels the Church does not have the personnel (professional lay and religious ecclesial ministers) to carry out this ministry. I have noted the same thing with parish Christian Service Coordinators, many of whom would deal with the ministry you are discussing. Now, the common answer to this is that parishes don’t have the money, which gets me to Smith’s study titled (I believe) Passing the Plate. One of his findings, if I remember correctly, is that one needs to ASK for money. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, we just had a campaign title CHANGING LIVES TOGETHER which asked for money and I gave to it. If they did not ask, that money would still be in my pocket. I think even a local pastor could say, “We must have a youth minister . . . and we need to pay him/her a decent salary so please give.” Now, of course, it could be stated more eloquently and clearly but you get the idea. I think the parishioners would give. The same thing needs to happen with Christian Service Coordinators and I believe then more parishes would start ministries such as you are calling for. Indeed, I have discussed how parishes need to bring together Christian service and youth ministry (because youth have a desire to help the poor) in order to truly implement the New Evangelization. And in all of this, mental health ministries are more likely to arise at the local parish level. Pie in the sky thinking?

  2. I’m going to focus my response on Rachel’s call for “more stand alone mental health ministries in our parishes and dioceses; it may mean providing priests with more in-depth training in counseling;but above all it means being present alongside those who suffer from mental illness.” And, Mike’s focus on the parish level.
    It makes tons of sense to me that parishes would be the point of first contact for people and families dealing with mental illness, so having the capacity to recognize and respond to these needs at a parish level is important. The question for me is what is the balance between parish-level programs and diocesan? Also, what is the balance between services offered by trained (certified) mental health professionals, pastoral ministers (i.e. Paid parish staff), volunteers and parish members?
    I’m also going to state up front that my perspective is partly framed from an experience as a young adult where a “parish-based” intervention with a mentally ill person “didn’t go well.” basically, a bible study group tried to perform an ‘exorcism’ on someone who was suffering from mental illness. This might be a rare case, but I am concerned about this kind of thing, even in less dramatic forms.
    Yes, I think priests and lay parish ministers should have good training in pastoral counseling, and I think this training should include knowing when to refer someone to a mental health professional. I would presume this is the case and perhaps the scope Rachel is referring to, but it it important enough a point to me to highlight.
    The other thing I want to highlight (which might also be implied in the post and comment) is that I think parish-based ministries should be able to refer people to formal treatment AND then provide an ongoing supportive environment for people and their families. Yes, this requires some training and possibly some staff with specific training, but I think it is important for there to be collaboration between parish ministries and the places where people are greeting primary mental health services (diocesan or other agencies).
    A final thought is that this might not be something every parish offers. I do think every parish should have a youth minister and every parish should be able to welcome people with mental illnesses, but maybe one parish among several in an area could host such a program and receive support from multiple parishes.

  3. Thank you, Mike and Katie, for taking the time to think about these issues and comment!
    Mike, your suggestions don’t seem like pie-in-the-sky thinking to me at all! I had actually never heard of the term “Christian Service Coordinator,” so I appreciate your bringing it to my attention. By writing this blog post, I had hoped to simply say that we need to pay more attention to the need for and possibility of mental health ministries in the Church. Your observation that parishes need to ask parishioners for support is exactly the sort of open dialogue that I would hope for.
    Katie, I definitely appreciate your concerns about the balance of care between parish-based ministries and mental health professionals, and the fact that parish-based interventions do not always go well. By mentioning the need for further training of clergy, my hope was that clergy would at least feel comfortable enough with issues of mental health that they would not automatically think that only mental health professionals had anything to say to people with mental illnesses, and that they could feel capable of providing spiritual support along the journey, since mental health professionals often don’t take client’s religious concerns into account enough. You rightly point out the need for treatment and a supportive environment. With regard to the sharing of ministries among parishes, this is something my archdiocese had tried to promote a decade ago by linking or clustering parishes, which would share their resources and ministries (parish priests, youth ministers, pro-life ministries). Unfortunately, the shared resources did not include mental health ministries, since none existed. So my concern in this post was calling attention to this lack of recognition that there is such a gap in our parishes and dioceses, and our Christian identity requires that we pay attention to it.
    I appreciate your insights and suggestions!