What can churches do to support those affected by mental illness?

This is the first in a series of articles about mental health.

Nancy Weldon facilitates a mental health support group meeting Friday at The Palmer House in Sauk Centre. (Photo by Paul Middlestaedt for The Visitor)

As a graduate student at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary, Nancy Weldon engaged in a field education project earlier this year with a local mental health support group.

She heard about the grassroots group, which has been meeting for about five years, after its members reached out to the SOT asking for help in raising awareness in the diocese about mental health conditions. The group of about 20 people, which meets weekly at the Palmer House in Sauk Centre, hopes to help other people facing similar challenges.

“I’ve been so moved by the way they minister to each other with a spirit of trust, patience and a desire to help each other find gratitude within their challenging journey,” said Weldon, who is studying to become a hospital chaplain.

According to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, nearly one in five U.S. adults experiences some form of mental illness in a given year; one in 24 has a serious mental illness and one in 12 has a substance use disorder.

“What this means to us as Catholics is that there are people in the pews next to us who are suffering,” said Weldon, who attends St. Joseph Church in St. Joseph. “Either they themselves are affected or someone they love is.”

A pastoral response

One of the questions that arose for Weldon is: What is the role of the church in assisting those affected by mental health issues?

Franciscan Sister Mary Fran Reichenberger, a licensed independent clinical social worker, said one role for the church is to offer a pastoral response.

“The church is a natural ally with mental health because churches can create [an] environment of safety and of welcome, offering the spirituality and traditions that give the sense of well-being and of being cared for,” she said. “Churches can be a place of friendship and understanding.

“Just as people sometimes find it difficult to speak with those who are grieving, similarly, people hesitate to approach people who have a mental health concern,” she added. “Just as in speaking with someone who has lost someone, it is our presence that is important, not so much our words. Sometimes all people need is a word of welcome and to feel like they are being treated like human beings.”

Sister Mary Fran is part of the multi-disciplinary team at Catholic Charities’ Caritas Mental Health Clinic and she spends one day a week at St. Andrew Church in Elk River — an outreach site of the clinic. She often hears misconceptions about faith and mental health, and she said churches also can be a place to help dispel some of those myths.

“Sometimes when people think of mental illness, they might be thinking of people who need [to be committed], and that’s not the case at all. Depression is the biggest issue and that can have serious consequences. We don’t know how many are out there who are struggling. We are likely sitting next to someone in our churches who is affected in some way by mental illness.”

The informal atmosphere of The Palmer House in Sauk Centre creates a relaxed environment for a mental support group meeting (Photo by Paul Middlestaedt for The Visitor)

She said that culturally, a lot has been done to de-stigmatize mental health issues but people still feel “ashamed, evaluated and guilty,” she said. “Somehow they are told they just need to ‘buck up’ or have more faith, then things will be all right.”

Sister Mary Fran, borrowing from 1 Corinthians said people with mental illness have a certain view of life, like “looking through a glass darkly.”

“With mental illness, there is a murky kind of vision of one’s life and relationships and it causes a lot of confusion. It affects their personal functioning but also enters into their work life and relationships, and that’s where there can be real pain,” she said.
Often that pain is invisible to others.

“It can be easier for us to put up a ramp for those who are physically disabled. It seems doable, something we can actually get our hands around. Trying to help those who are disabled with mental illness is a whole different issue. There’s not a ramp that you can build,” she explained.

Although some parishes already have support groups in place, others are challenged with finding resources — financial as well as people-power — to meet this growing need.

As part of her research, Weldon talked with a pastor and found that he was empathetic about the need for more care, but expressed that time and resources are an issue.

Sister Mary Fran said there are ways both faith leaders and the people in the pews can get involved. One of the main ways she said is simply becoming attuned to mental health issues.

“Wouldn’t it be great if parishes did study groups to learn about mental health, to explore who in their parish might be in need?” she suggested. “How do our ministries spring up? Through need and a pastoral response.”

Another concern is making sure that the church does not take the place of mental health professionals.

“The church needs to be a place of tenderness,” Sister Mary Fran said. “I’ve had the good fortune to have people who have been referred by their pastors. The pastor was really patient but also knew the limits of his own practice, that the confessional was not the place where the person was solely going to be healed but that they needed to seek mental health help.”

Recognizing needs of others

Weldon feels her experience collaborating with the support group opened her eyes to just how big the issue of mental health is in a community.

“As more people seek treatment and diagnosis of these health issues, it’s going to be important for faith leaders to be trained in recognizing the needs of those experiencing mental illness and their families,” Weldon said.

The awareness she’s gained about mental health and how it affects people’s day-to-day lives has helped her not only to realize that there is a need for more mental health care, but also to recognize how it will play a role in her own ministry.

“This experience has helped me to look through the lens of how an existing mental health condition might affect the way someone might be dealing with a medical situation or end-of-life situation, and that will help me to better minister to them.”

Next in the series, May 19: Members of the mental health support group in Sauk Centre share their stories about living with mental illness.

About Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Visitor newspaper.

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