Mental Health in Ministry
"Whoever suffers from mental illness ‘always’ bears God’s image and likeness in themselves, as does every human being. In addition, they ‘always’ have the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore a person, but also to be treated as such.”
-St. John Paul II
According to the American Psychiatric Association (2018):
•Nearly 1 in 5 (19%) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness.
•1 in 24 (4.1%) has a serious mental illness.
•1 in 12 (8.5%) has a diagnosable substance use disorder.
As you can see, mental illness is more commonly seen in our society than one would think. For this reason especially, St. John Paul II's words most definitely must be lived out in our Church. The quote above is from his address at an international conference on mental illness in 1996. St. John Paul II goes on to say:
"It is everyone's duty to make an active response: our actions must show that mental illness does not create insurmountable distances, nor prevent relations of true Christian charity with those who are its victims. Indeed, it should inspire a particularly attentive attitude towards these people who are fully entitled to belong to the category of the poor to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs (cf. Mt 5:3)."
- St. John Paul II
Unfortunately, stigma around mental health exists both in our society and in our Church. It's time to break that stigma, and truly be active in loving our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer from mental illness. We can do this both through our words and through our actions.
Let's be mindful of how and what we say in efforts to help.
Common things that are said that can be hurtful (even if our intention is to be helpful):
"You have nothing to be depressed about. Think of all your blessings.” Let us remember that a person does not "choose" to be depressed. No one wants to feel that way, and yes a person may reflect on all of their blessings but still feel depressed. By saying this, we can truly invalidate how someone may feel. Instead, let's choose to just listen and say "I'm here if you need a friend."
”You have nothing to be scared/anxious about, God is always with you.”
Let us remember that when someone suffers from clinical anxiety, they cannot just "turn off the worry". Yes, they know that God is always with them, but it is still hard to work through the anxiety and that's okay. They are doing their best. Sometimes by saying this, a person could feel frustrated that "they are not trying enough" or truly feel invalidated in their experience. Instead, let's choose to say "it's okay to feel anxious" or "I'm here for you."
”Praying helps take away anxiety/depression.” Again, let us be careful with our words and let us remember that a person very much may be praying more than you know. Clinical anxiety and depression have nothing to do with our amount of faith. Let us be careful not to discourage someone's faith by assuming they are not praying enough. Instead let us say, "Prayer can help as a coping mechanism, as well as other ways of coping like listening to music, art, exercise."
“You’re not trusting in God if you are anxious.”
Again, let us be careful with our words. Clinical anxiety and depression have nothing to do with our amount of faith in God. A person could be praying daily, asking to be freed of the anxiety. Instead, let us say "I know it feels really hard right now, but this will pass. You are not alone."
“You are being spiritually attacked or possessed.”
Let us especially be careful in saying this. Yes, spiritual attacks can happen but let us not dismiss that mental illness does exist. By saying this, we can discourage someone from the faith and from getting the right support. Instead we can say, "What's been helpful to you in coping with this?" Or, "How can I support you?"
“Just carry your cross.”
We all have crosses to carry, but does not mean we have to carry them alone. Sometimes carrying the cross of mental illness does mean going to therapy, taking medication, seeking support. It does not have to be carried in silence or dealt with alone. Instead, let us be supportive of the actions (if appropriate) our loved ones may be taking, and we can say: "That's great to hear therapy has been helpful."
How do we start breaking the stigma?
We start by talking about it. We start by normalizing therapy, taking medication, doing self-care, setting healthy boundaries, etc. We start by advocating within our own communities. If you hear someone shaming mental illness, let's change the script! Let's be part of the voice and let us be the love for our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer from mental illness.
Start with brainstorming/reflection. How is mental health and mental illness talked about in your parish? What resources are there available? If not at your own parish, what about your diocese or surrounding parishes? What are they doing? What can be done at your own parish?
We can start small, in our communities, in our ministries. And we can start simply by discussion and education, from there more can be formed.
Some ways we can break the stigma within our ministries:
Open to learning.
If it's possible, have your leaders take a workshop focused on mental health, stigma around mental health, how to respond in a crisis and how to support our brothers and sisters in Christ (or even ourselves). Have open discussions with the leaders in your ministry about mental health and how mental illness is discussed. It is quite often we might be presented with a situation within our ministries and so it is important to have the right tools to respond.
Be inviting. Be inclusive. Sometimes we might think a person who is suffering from mental illness is not wanting to participate or does not want to be given a task, but we should never assume. Your invitation, your hospitality, could mean a lot.
Be mindful of your language.
It is far to common that in our everyday language we might say "that was traumatizing" or "my OCD" or "that's triggering" or "they're so bipolar" and so on... The problem is, most of the times that these things are said, the true meaning of what is said is disregarded. We might not actually have OCD, it might not actually be traumatic, they might not actually be bipolar. We cannot use these terms as adjectives. Instead, let's be mindful of the language we use and how it can impact our brothers and sisters in Christ who do suffer from mental illness.
Normalize mental health.
Let's talk about it. Let's normalize caring for our mental health. Let's normalize going to therapy, taking medication and talking about mental health. Let's make it more known and available in our parish.
If we don't see mental health being talked about or normalized at our parish, let us advocate for it. We can start by talking to our pastors: What ideas do they have? What has already been done? What resources does the parish have? Can we start a ministry?
Mental Health Ministry
Let's even form a mental health ministry at our own parish, dedicated to bringing education and resources to the parish community.
The change begins with us. It begins here and now.