As many as 61.5 million Americans — one in four adults — experiences mental illness in a given year. One in 17 adults lives with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder, while approximately 20 percent of teens ages 13-18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Individuals with mental illness and their families are members of our parishes, but suffer silently. They may avoid Mass or participation in parish activities altogether because they don’t want people to see them differently.
One Catholic mom in our diocese says her adult son with mental illness has found a comfortable faith home outside of the Catholic Church. He longs for the faithful to accept him, listen to him and invite him to join in their activities.
She and other advocates in the Davenport Diocese and at the national level hope to increase awareness of mental illness, dispel misconceptions and foster a welcoming attitude in the pews.
Perhaps someone with mental illness who hears voices needs to wear headphones at Mass or parish activities to stop the voices. Another person might need to get up and walk around, and still another person may have issues with touch, such as at the sign of peace, or an aversion to standing too close to others. “People aren’t used to seeing adults do some of these things, so awareness is important,” notes Nancy Thompson, director of programs and diocesan relations with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD). That doesn’t mean inappropriate behaviors are allowed; rules can be set with pastoral sensitivity, she adds.
An NCPD video called “Welcomed and Valued, Supporting People with Mental Illness in Parish Life” shares the stories of individuals with mental illness who speak about their needs as Catholics participating in the life of the Church. This 27-minute video enlightens and inspires. Faith is a central resource for people with mental illness and they need access to it. We need to look to individuals’ gifts, not their disabilities, and recognize that we don’t always have to have the answer, just be open. A middle-aged woman with bipolar disorder describes in the video what faith means to her: “That I have hope. When all else fails, God will help you. You can’t get well without God.”
The NCPD (www.ncpd.org) also offers a program which trains leaders in dioceses across the country to become part of the Mental Illness Awareness Network.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI, www.nami.org) is another tremendous resource. “The education, support and advocacy that NAMI provides individuals and families is consistent with Catholic Social Teaching,” observes Kent Ferris, director of Social Action and Catholic Charities for the Davenport Diocese. “Pastors just need to know how to connect parishioners with their local NAMI affiliate.”
Keep in mind that not all individuals with mental illness “look” different, advises Chris McCormick Pries, clinical director of the Vera French Community Mental Health Center in Davenport. “If we remember one in five individuals in this country exhibit symptoms of mental illness at some time in their lives, then look around in the church on a Sunday or at an activity in our parish, there are many individuals with mental illness involved in parish life. Never forget the mentally ill are our parents our children, our spouses, our neighbors and members of our church community.”
Jennifer Hildebrand, who’s involved in health ministry in the Davenport Diocese, says all of us in the pews can be a welcoming presence to people with mental illness by doing something very simple. “You should never underestimate the power of a simple ‘hello’ or ‘a friendly smile’ to someone in your pew!”