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home : opinion : perspectives

5/11/2017 9:00:00 AM
PERSPECTIVE
May is Mental Health Awareness Month
BY REV. THOMAS KONOPKA


(Editor's note: Father Konopka is director of the diocesan Consultation Center in Albany, which offers counseling services and mental health education, and sacramental minister for St. Clare's parish in Colonie and the Capital District Psychiatric Center.)

There are many things we celebrate during May: First Communions, Mother's Day, Memorial Day. There is one topic we probably are not talking about: May is Mental Health Awareness month.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015, 43.3 million people in the United States were diagnosed with a mental health issue. That does not include a substance abuse diagnosis. This is 17.9 percent of the population. Often, a diagnosis of mental illness will create a stigma that prevents many people from accessing mental health services.

To promote the dignity of the person is primary to Catholic social teaching. For the Church to be a leader in raising awareness of mental health issues is a mandate of Catholic social teaching and a responsibility we have from Jesus.

We, the Church, need to see a person who has a mental health diagnosis (no matter what it is) as a brother or sister in Christ. That person deserves the dignity of love and support from us. Did not Jesus mandate us to care for the least among us (Matthew 25)? Did not Jesus treat every single person with respect and care?

As people of faith, we need to help those who deal with chronic mental illness to have an adequate place to live and access to mental health treatment. Too many of our brothers and sisters who struggle every day with these issues are homeless or end up in jail.

According to the Mental Health Ministry website (www.mentalhealthministries.net), 26 percent of the homeless population live with a mental illness. According to a National Alliance of Mental health fact sheet, 24 percent of those in jail or prison have a mental illness diagnosis.

As Gospel people, we need to make room in our pews for the person who is "different," and make sure he or she knows there is acceptance in the Catholic community. This is promoting the dignity of the human person.

As God's people, we need to speak for those with mental illness, because they are often afraid to come into the light and let others know what they deal with. Like Jesus, we need to be the voice of those who are afraid to speak.

To build communities of welcome, we need to create a space where people will not be afraid to talk about their anxiety disorders, their depressive disorders or a severe mental health issue such as bipolar or schizophrenia.

Those who deal with trauma will find strength in our pews and hope from out support. Our brothers and sisters who have an addiction, whether it is substance or behavioral, will find the strength in our prayer and support for them as they struggle to be free.

Imagine how much richer our communities will be if everyone who comes to worship on Sunday will feel free to be themselves and not feel judged or fell they have to hide their pain.

In 2009, there was an article about mental health in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper titled, "When you're mentally ill, no one brings you a casserole." That headline says it all for me. We need to strive to treat those with a mental health issue was we treat every other person with an illness: with love, respect and dignity.

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (www.ncpd.org) has many ideas that can be used this month to begin to raise an awareness of mental health issues:

•  a "blurb" about mental health (see the NCPD or Mental Health Ministries websites);

•  a petition in the prayer of the faithful for those with mental illness on a regular basis; •  training a pastoral care team to minister to those with mental health issues;

•  advocating for the rights and needs of the mentally ill for adequate housing, medical insurance access, and other social needs;

•  changing the environment of the parish so that those with mental health problems feel welcome and at home, with adequate training of ushers, eucharistic ministers, lectors, clergy and faith formation and parish staff on how to minister to people with some type of mental health issue;

* changing our language: avoiding descriptions like "crazy" or "nuts," speaking against jokes that make fun of people with a mental health issue and confronting the stigmas that exist.

If we all commit ourselves to things like these, then God will use us to transform our communities into places of welcome and acceptance.

It begins with one small thing: a smile to someone who is struggling with a major depressive episode can be the beginning of healing; a kind word to someone who deals every day with schizophrenia can be the strength he or she needs at the moment.

May is the month of Mary, the healer of the sick and the comforter of the afflicted (as she's described in in the litany of Loretto). May her prayers enable us to open our arms and hearts to those who deal with mental health issues. May the mother of God teach us to be open to these brothers and sisters who, like each of us, are her beloved children.





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