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May is Mental Illness Awareness Month


In his Message for the 14th World Day of the Sick in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “On this occasion, the Church intends to bow down over those who suffer with special concern, calling the attention of public opinion to the problems connected with mental disturbance that now afflicts one-fifth of humanity and is a real social-health care emergency. I therefore encourage the efforts of those who strive to ensure that all mentally ill people are given access to necessary forms of care and treatment.” Since 1949, the month of May has been observed as Mental Health Month. There is high prevalence of mental illness in every faith community. One in five families has a member with a diagnosable mental illness. One in seventeen people lives with a persistent or severe mental illness. Often individuals or families turn to their parish community for support and guidance. Regrettably, some parishes fail to respond due to limited understanding of mental illness or lack of awareness of the power of supportive relationships. Yet one cannot deny the role that faith communities can play in providing the understanding and compassionate support essential to recovery and living daily with this challenging illness. People who experience major mental illnesses tend to feel isolated and marginalized. They often feel excluded from the community in which they grew up and from their own parish. The myths about and the misunderstanding of mental illness keep some people and their families from participating in the life of the church because they feel judged, devalued, unwelcome, or "different." Awareness of these perceptions, which are often overlooked or discounted, can guide parishes in the most helpful response. Including people with mental illness and their families in addressing these issues will provide insights into the most effective response. People who experience major mental illnesses tend to feel isolated and marginalized. They often feel excluded from the community in which they grew up and from their own parish. The onset and subsequent diagnosis of mental illness impacts families as well as the individual. Families with a member with mental illness often do not know where to turn for help. Understanding and coping with the illness, as well as the search for services and support, drains them spiritually, physically, emotionally, and financially. Often relationships with extended family members and friends are strained. The illness itself and the associated stigma of mental illness can lead to feelings of guilt, denial, grief, isolation and loss of hope. People who live with mental illness are disproportionately impacted by the social injustices of prejudice, poverty, inadequate housing, unemployment or underemployment, lack of access to health care, especially mental health care, and inequalities within the criminal justice system. Each issue demands advocacy to ensure that the needs of people with mental illness are effectively addressed. Serious mental illness can cause a crisis of faith for the person with mental illness and for the family. Why me/why our family? Is God punishing me/us? These and other questions can shake one‘s faith and be obstacles to recovery. A supportive faith community can help work through doubts and questions in a way that contributes to recovery and a restoration of faith. An informed and caring faith community is an integral part of the holistic support system that provides companionship and hope to people living with mental illness, and to their families. Prepared with information distributed by the NCPD Council on Mental Illness, © 2009. Kay Hughes, a Petoskey parishioner and member of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability Council on Mental Illness, spurred the diocese into hosting a special conference to bring awareness to mental illness and ministering to those suffering from a mental illness as well as their families and friends. In July of 2009, the NCPD released a manual and DVD titled, “Welcomed and Valued: Building Faith Communities of Support and Hope with People with Mental Illness and Their Families.” In its introduction, Kay wrote: For eight years, inexplicable pain, fear, and self-hate had a death grip on me... Among “my people” I found we receive the most stigmatization from our churches! I remember sitting in the hospital, huddled in a little group of about six, when one of us received a visit from her pastor. The rest of us sat there and related things like, “my pastor never visits me; no one from the church visits me; I‘ve never even received a card from my church, let alone visits or flowers, etc.” If it wasn‘t for the hospital chaplain, we would have had no prayer, no affirmation. We weren‘t abandoned by God, just by our churches. Because of the stigma, I observed, experientially, we are not prayed for during the Prayers of the Faithful, as those having surgery, or enduring other physical disorders. Lack of education about mental illness, as well as apathy, is at the core of this painful abandonment. A number of my friends with mental illness tell me they fear going to church—for fear someone will find out. How can it be that a church is not a “safe” place—a sanctuary for those who need respect, dignity, affirmation, prayer, and hope for recovery—a place where a wounded soul can find the Body of Christ in Eucharist, and in skin? We are not our diagnosis. We, too, have gifts and talents to be shared. You need to understand our serious needs. “My prayer is that all pastors, deacons, and parish staff, study groups, individuals will view the DVD, read the manual and share it with others,” Kay added. For more information and to obtain resources, please visit National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities.

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