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Parishes called to welcome those with mental illness

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When Deacon Tom Lambert's wife went to the hospital for open heart surgery, friends brought unsolicited meals to the family's door. "For three or four weeks, every day at six o'clock, the bell would ring and a different family would bring us dinner," he said. Those neighbors and fellow parishioners were responding to a need.

But a different diagnosis some years later garnered no response. "When our daughter was diagnosed with mental illness, no one came to the door," he said.

That was 25 years ago, and Deacon Lambert, who co-chairs the National Catholic Partnership on Disability's Council on Mental Illness, said that awareness is essential in combatting the stigma associated with a disease of the mind.

This week, Oct. 7-13, is National Mental Illness Awareness Week. In the United States, severe or persistent mental illness affects 1 in 17 Americans. The mental illness disability rate has more than doubled since the 1980s and increased six-fold since the 1950s. There are clinicians and researchers who believe the increase has been influenced by external factors. Some theorize that it is affected by a widening of the criteria for mental illness, which used to be thought of as chronic and irreversible conditions. Others attribute the rate increase in part to the requirement of a diagnosis before pharmaceutical and insurance companies will dispense treatment.

Unfortunately, treatment plans have long ignored a patient's spiritual needs, said Sister Nancy Kehoe, RSCJ, a clinical psychologist and member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. She authored the book "Wrestling with our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness, and the Journey to Wholeness."

When she began working with people who are mentally ill 30 years ago, no one wanted to address faith issues. Mental health professionals did not have the training to know what to do when a patient spoke about spirituality.

"It was really unheard of in 1981 to have anyone suggest that it would be worthwhile to have a conversation with people with serious mental illness about religion because up until then, it was really just seen as part of their symptoms or a defense," she said. "Either people pathologized it or they ignored it."

Contrary to the prevailing belief that faith was a part of a patient's mental illness, Sister Nancy soon discovered that it was often part of their strength. She started a group for people who wanted to talk about mental illness and religion. The group meets monthly at St. Paul Parish in Cambridge.

When someone struggles with a severe mental illness, they often feel isolated. Their behaviors may put others at a distance, and they may have difficulty holding a job, keeping relationships and living on their own.

Deacon Lambert said that many people at Sunday Mass privately struggle with mental illness and the vast majority are managing their illness well.

"Nobody's going to come up and say, 'Well, I have schizophrenia, but I go to work every day, I hold a job, I have a marriage.' But I guarantee there's a lot of people who are in that situation," he said.

As "people of compassion and justice," Catholics need to create safe havens for people to talk about their mental illness and allow their faith to be part of their healing. Something as simple as a prayer intention at Mass during Mental Illness Awareness Week may spark hope.

He said of his family's reaction to his daughter's diagnosis, "We relied very heavily on our faith. It was crucial in getting us through that. Through prayer and turning things over to the Lord, saying we're going to deal with this situation with the strength and hope that comes from God and our faith. That's really what got us through, quite honestly. It's as simple as that."

Father Rodney Thibault, director of the Diocese of Fall River's Pastoral Care of the Sick, said that his work in hospital ministry has brought him in frequent contact with people whose mental illnesses have put them in the psychiatric ward, often because they are battling suicidal thoughts.

"I have found that people really do reach out, and they seek the presence of God in their lives in a moment like that. Usually, it's to find that inner peace," he said. "They know that Jesus is the one who is the king of peace."

For specific ways your parish can reach out to its members struggling with mental illness, visit the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities website at http://ncpd.org/.

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