(CNS PHOTO/RICARDO MORAES, REUTERS)
(CNS PHOTO/RICARDO MORAES, REUTERS)

The families of those who have been diagnosed with a mental health problem often suffer in silence. The stigma attached to having a major depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction or any mental health diagnosis is huge.

The surprising thing is that these families sit next to us every weekend at Mass. We need to ask, “How can we as a community of faith become a source of support for these families?”

Why don’t people don’t tell their pastoral leadership or their fellow pew-mates? It can be summed up in one word: stigma. “What will people think about us?”

There are old myths that mental health issues are caused by the way a person was parented. Parents often blame themselves for what is happening to their child. Spouses also feel some guilt. Families are silent because of the fear of being judged or shut out of other people’s lives.
Intentionally and unintentionally, we also say things about mental health issues without realizing how harmful that can be: “That person is weird;” “All crazy people are violent;” “If he/she just pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, they’d be OK;” “They are just weak.”

People with a mental health problem are feared or pictured as comical in the media. Others believe that the illness is “contagious.” What person dealing with a mental health issues would want to open him- or herself up to possible ridicule or being shunned by asking for help?    

The bishops of California just released a pastoral letter, “Hope and Healing.” They write: “Those living with a mental illness should never bear their burden alone; nor should their families who struggle heroically to assist their loved ones. We Christians must encounter them, accompany them, comfort them and bear their burden in solidarity with them — offering our understanding and prayer, and tangible and ongoing assistance.”

That quote is the roadmap for our outreach.  

1. Be in solidarity. We need to create communities where the parents/families of those who deal with a mental health issue feel as free to ask for our prayers and support as those who deal with a severe physical illness.

2. Be advocates. Jesus calls us to be salt and leaven in society. We need to speak for the rights of the mentally ill in society and to challenge legislatures to enact laws to ensure treatment availability, provide alternatives to incarceration when a person with a mental health issue creates a public disturbance and more. Our advocacy also needs to be in our parishes: sponsoring awareness programs, learning about mental health, and modeling inclusivity and tolerance.

3. Be understanding. Unless people have had someone with a mental health issue in their family, they will never understand the stress the family is under, especially if there is a crisis. As a Church, we need to extend a hand of support and compassion, to reach out with a pot of soup and a casserole, to let the family know they are in our prayers and to support them in whatever other ways we can.

The beginning step is this: to ask ourselves and our parishes, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus offers us the eyes to see brothers and sisters who need us, just as we notice people with any other issues in their lives. Jesus stands in solidarity with these families and their loved one. Nowhere do we read in the Gospels that Jesus did not reach out to those who needed Him.

Jesus embraces their families with His care and support. He stands next to them like the shepherd with the sheep who needed Him or the woman at the well whom He treated as an equal. With a brother’s love, He is the light in the darkness of their struggle.

(Father Konopka is director of the diocesan Consultation Center in Albany, which offers mental health services, and pastor of St. Mary’s parish in Clinton Heights. Contact the Consultation Center at 518-489-4431 and see www.consultationcenteralbany.org.)