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)