by Tom Racunas
Excessive worrying. Avoiding friends and social activities. Abusing alcohol or drugs. Strong feelings of irritability or anger. Extreme mood swings. Feeling excessively sad. Thoughts of suicide.
These are some of the common symptoms of mental illness.
“Ah, but I’m not mentally ill,” you say. No, maybe not right now. But we have all experienced mental illness in the past and we may experience it in the future.
We have been physically ill in the past and, in all likelihood, we will experience physical illness in the future as well. Mental illness is just that: an illness. Like other illnesses, a continuum of symptoms occur that range from mild to severe.
When symptoms are mild, a few good nights of sleep, exercise and talking to a trusted friend can help us feel better in a few days. When symptoms are more moderate to severe and persistent, we may need to see a health care professional, participate in counseling and/or therapy sessions and take medication.
When our physical symptoms are severe and persistent, our parish community is there for us. They prepare meals, do laundry, run errands, offer to take the kids for a few hours, pray with us and for us, call to ask how we are doing and, sometimes, sit with us and hold our hand.
All too often, this is not the response for people and their families who suffer from severe and persistent mental illness.
The person with the mental illness and their family bear the additional burden of the stigma of shame and the shunning we unintentionally place on them. This creates a great barrier to them participating meaningfully in the life of the church — participation that could aid their healing.
The Gospel calls us to a different response.
In 2018, the bishops of California issued a pastoral letter on caring for those who suffer from mental illness. They detailed six simple and convincing principles to guide that response: 1) Christ calls us to attend to those who suffer from mental illness and provide hope and healing; 2) The scope and burden of mental illness in our society is enormous. We are all affected by mental health concerns; 3) Those suffering from mental illness should not be stigmatized or judged; 4) The church, health professionals and scientific researchers should work together to improve mental health care; 5) We must meet and attend to those in need where they are; and 6) Those impacted by suicide need our compassionate response.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you want to help change the response, mental health literacy programs are available for individuals or parish groups.
If you, a loved one or someone you know is struggling, there is help. Catholic counselors are available throughout the archdiocese. There are support groups for those who have lost a loved one to suicide or sudden death.
The Calix Society is a Catholic support group for those with addictions. For more information, go online to: www.archkck.org/special-needs and click on “Mental Health” at the top or send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saint Dymphna, pray for us.