If a family member had a serious illness, would you use a derogatory term to describe them because of it? Would you exclude them or define them by their illness?
Of course not.
Yet, this is what happens every day to people who experience mental illness.
“We need to understand mental illnesses as illnesses, just as we see cancer or heart disease as an illness,”said Kay King, community educator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota.
“We [should] say they live with it, they experience it, they manage it,” she said.
King spoke at the annual parish social ministry gathering “Strengthening People, Strengthening Communities” Oct. 13 at St. Louis Church in Paynesville. The event, which was sponsored by the Catholic Charities Office of Social Concerns, focused on mental health and the role of faith communities in helping individuals and families struggling with those issues.
“We continued to hear concerns and questions and the need for resources around mental health,” said Kateri Mancini, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities. “So we knew it was an important issue to our parishes, and we wanted to help equip them to address it positively in their communities.”
According to King, one in five people — both adults and youth — live with a diagnosable mental illness. And, a person experiencing a mental illness lives with their symptoms for an average of 10 years before seeking help.
Despite how common mental illnesses are, there continues to be a social stigma that results in both active prejudice and discrimination against people who live with a mental illness, King said.
“We need to extend to people who live with a mental illness the same understanding and compassion we extend to people who live with other kinds of illnesses,” she said.
NAMI Minnesota works closely with faith-based communities throughout Minnesota to provide education, support and advocacy for people living with a mental illness, their families and professionals in pastoral care.
In her keynote address, King talked about ways to make faith communities a better place for those experiencing mental illness.
One important thing, she said, is that priests and pastors get involved in the conversation.
According to NAMI Minnesota, 66 percent of priests and pastors mention mental illness in homilies or sermons in their faith communities only once a year, rarely or never.
“As a priest, I recognize that mental health is fundamentally intertwined with physical and spiritual health,” said Benedictine Father Edward Vebelun, pastor of the Albany Area Catholic Community Cluster who attended the event.
“So, if we want to live in all the fullness of the hope of the Gospel, we would do well to speak about mental illness on a regular basis in our faith communities,” he said.
Another important step is to use respectful and accurate language. “We hear a lot of derogatory language, and that doesn’t exist for other illnesses,” King said.
She suggests using “mental illnesses,” plural, or “a mental illness” to recognize that each illness is different and using the word “experiencing” instead of the more negative, “suffering from.”
“One of the worthy challenges in dealing with mental health is overcoming frustrating stigmas that some people are ‘crazy’ or ‘difficult,’” Father Vebelun said.
“With good scientific evidence, we can find a way to deal with the symptoms of illness and walk together as children of God,” he said.
Knowing the common symptoms of mental illnesses can be very helpful. For example, among the most common mental illnesses are anxiety disorders — half of the people who develop anxiety disorders in their lifetime develop them by age 11, King said. This is important for parents, teachers and faith formation teachers to know, she said.
If people recognize the symptoms, they can help someone get help early, she said.
“Seventy-five percent of people who are going to have signs and symptoms any time in their lifetime have them by age 24,” King said.
“We want people to live full lives and they can, but they need to get early help,” she said. “They need to have the support of friends, family, and faith communities. People need to recognize some of those risk factors, signs and symptoms so that they can connect the person with services.”
King offered some concrete ways that parishes can be communities of hope and support for people experiencing mental illness. Examples include:
- hold educational sessions
- host support groups or classes
- have awareness events
- provide mental health training for pastoral staff
- include the topic in homilies regularly
- offer a Bible study with mental illness as the theme.
“It is my hope that through the information and resources offered, we strengthened the people who attended,” said Mancini. “But also that through what they take back to their parishes they will also continue to strengthen others and make their communities as a whole stronger.”
The gathering featured break-out sessions on mental health and farmers, mental health in the Latino community and suicide prevention training.
Other session topics included human trafficking, racism and intercultural communities and housing/homelessness.
“Anytime that members of our communities become marginalized, including due to mental health struggles, it is a social justice issue, and we are called to respond with concern, prayer, advocacy and action,” Mancini said.