By Chris McCormick Pries
By One in four families sitting in the pews has a member dealing with mental illness. Yet our religious communities are often silent when it comes to understanding mental disorders as treatable illnesses. As a result, persons struggling with a mental illness and their family members often become detached from their faith communities and their spirituality.
Individuals experiencing mental illness are among the most marginalized and underserved in our society. Although advances have been made to educate members of society, stigma continues to inhibit discussion and mental illness is whispered about. Seldom do individuals with symptoms of various psychiatric disorders come forward to lead the charge to bring about change in how we think about, fund or offer mental health services.
As a mental health professional offering clinical services for over 40 years, at times I feel as if I have been on the battlefield of life, with no end to the conflict in sight and no one to join me in the daily battles. But I and my colleagues carry on. We do so because we believe that everyone has promise, can recover and rebuild from life’s misfortunes and should be able to have what we all want, namely the warmth of relationships, the safety of home, the experience of community and the dignity of being able to contribute to society.
From the first day of his papacy, Pope Francis has reminded us of the church’s fundamental responsibility to the poor and marginalized. Francis’ message is clear: as people and institutions, we need to be welcoming (not judging); serve those in need (the wounded); and practice what we preach. This is more and more the lesson learned in the mental health field, where the powerful concept of recovery is spreading. Recovery means sustaining hope, inclusion, finding strengths, building resilience and valuing, most of all, the individual’s needs and wishes first. Recovery does not deny illness. That would not help. Recovery is about creating a life despite limitations, which seems to have far greater application than just to those with mental and addictive disorders.
Inspiration for contemporary mental health care began with the call to action by President John F. Kennedy shortly after his election in November 1960. He believed all Americans, including those with intellectual disabilities, mental illness and addictions, have a right to lead dignified lives and share the benefits of our society. The 1963 Community Mental Health Center Act described as “a bold new approach” was the first federal law to encourage community-based mental health care. Although much of our past way of offering these services has changed, this vision still guides those of us in mental health today.
Signed on Oct. 31, 1963, weeks before Kennedy was assassinated, the legislation aimed to build mental health centers accessible to all Americans so that those with mental illnesses could be treated while working and living at home, rather than being kept in neglectful and often abusive state institutions, sometimes for years on end. It is about providing a continuum of care and a “safety net” for those most in need. Kennedy said when he signed the bill that the idea was to successfully and quickly treat patients in their own communities and then return them to “a useful place in society.”
Fast forward 55 years; how are we doing now? That question is difficult to answer. For many Catholics experiencing mental illness and their families, the church can be both a place of welcome and alienation. Just as society has struggled with how to deal with those who experience symptoms of mental illness, parishes and dioceses have found the area equally challenging.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in four Americans has a mental disorder. Of those, one in 17 experience symptoms of serious mental illness, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post -traumatic disorder or borderline personality disorder. Those numbers mean that every Catholic is affected by mental illness in some way.
For some, the most tragic and painful outcome of experiencing a mental illness is death by suicide. Often, for reasons we can not comprehend, some individuals suffering symptoms of mental illness experience conflicting emotions and constricted thinking, to the point they feel trapped and cannot see any way out of the mental anguish consuming them daily. These thoughts and feelings impair the ability to reason clearly, adversely impacting judgment. In this condition, individuals are liable to do things they would not otherwise do. Tragically, sometimes mental illness proves fatal. Family members and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide need care and attention, often for considerable periods of time. Grief is complicated by shame, anger or confusion as well as feeling alone and misunderstood. Finding someone safe to discuss this with is sometimes impossible.
It is critical that we, as Catholics, get to know, befriend and listen to people suffering from symptoms of mental illness. It is not because we have all the answers to their problems or can cure all of their afflictions, but because these encounters — these small acts of love and compassion, understanding and friendship — are exactly what people need the most.
Jesus Christ’s public life was a ministry of hope and healing. As Catholics, in imitation of our Lord, we are called to provide hope and healing to others. Those living with mental illness should never bear these burdens alone, nor should their families.
(Chris McCormick Pries, ARNP, is an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner and Clinical Director of Vera French Community Mental Health Center, Davenport. She is a Parish Nurse at St. John Vianney in Bettendorf and a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Guild of the Quad Cities.)