By Elizabeth Fisher
Special to The CS&T

Most people don’t think of mental illness unless it screams from a headline, such as when a young man with a “history of mental illness” tries to kill a congresswoman in Tucson, Ariz., shoots 18 other people, killing six of them.

Or, there’s a successful but troubled actor whose agonies, whether spurred by or the cause of mental illness, publicly bellows his hubris, raising eyebrows but ringing alarm bells in physicians experienced in treating addiction disorders.

It is cases such as these that cause those who suffer any form of mental illness to remain in the shadows, concealing their need for treatment, or even avoiding treatment. And there are more suffering mental illness than the average person realizes, said. Ralph Shirley, a licensed psychologist and deacon at Our Lady of Ransom Parish.{{more}}

The Northeast Philadelphia parish is one of many in the Archdiocese that welcomes people with all disabilities, including mental illness. Deacon Shirley is a perfect fit in that setting, experienced as he is with the needs of the mentally ill, and with the spiritual training of the diaconate.

Faith communities are natural settings where those with illness can feel safe and comfortable, where they don’t have to feel any more ashamed than people with diabetes or other physical illnesses, said Deacon Shirley, who has practiced in the Philadelphia area since 1990.

“People who are part of faith communities need to understand that there are inspaniduals with mental illness in their midst. They need to be warm and accepting of these people, to make them part of activities and events,” he said.

Education is another tool that can help people understand various aspects of mental illness, the most important that the illness is not a choice. And those afflicted need not be feared. They are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, he said.

In the United States, one of four people suffers some form of mental illness, and 5 to 10 percent of those require significant treatment. Less than 10 percent of those who are under treatment are likely to be violent, Deacon Shirley added.

“Yet, when something does happen, they do feel stigmatized, they feel criminalized and misunderstood,” he said. “The only thing we can ask of people is to be aware of how prevalent mental illness is and that there are many people hurting that need help.”

There are about 240 parishes and approximately 130 advocates for the mentally ill, a category that includes people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, said Janell Lavender, coordinator for pastoral care for persons with disabilities, part of the archdiocesan Respect Life Office.

That office provides two workshops a year to help people understand mental illness, provides contacts for those in need and educates caregivers, said Lavender, who is also a member of the National Catholic Partnership of People with Disabilities.

“It is because of the stigma of mental illness that its victims are not likely to tell anyone. By reaching out, we can make a difference in people’s lives and can comfort them in a crisis, and can provide safe communities for them,” Lavender said.

Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.