Catholic ministry is often categorized as liturgical, pro-life or social justice, but there is a relatively recent ministry that encompasses all three and focuses on accompanying Catholics who live with mental illness as well as accompanying their families.

The issue of mental illness often brings to mind professionals who are licensed to treat people.

But leaders in mental health ministry at the parish and diocesan levels told attendees at a recent conference that this is a ministry everyone can do, because the critical task is listening to and being present to someone who is struggling.

More than 100 laypeople, clergy and religious from across the country attended the conference on “Building a Culture of Community: Equipping Leaders for Mental Health Ministry” held in May in Los Altos, California.

Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan of San Diego opened the gathering, sharing his experience of the suicide deaths of some of his family members, and the impact of this on him and his family.

Bishop Dolan invited participants to consider ways for parishes and communities to join through prayer and accompaniment those who live with struggles and mental health challenges. He reminded conference participants that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God, with a certain unity and communion with God.

“The French Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel insists there is a certain ‘witness’ imbedded in our human essence,” Bishop Dolan said. “If in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, we must conclude that to be made in God’s image means that, as Marcell says, ‘to be is to be with.’ Anything less is missing the mark.”

Bishop Dolan noted that while churches have made strides in addressing the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act in accommodating those with physical disabilities, they haven’t yet extended this welcome to all with mental illness or offered accompaniment to those living on the peripheries.

The bishop also quoted from “Hope and Healing: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of California on Caring for Those Who Suffer from Mental Illness.”

This pastoral letter, published in 2018, offers theological and practical points for responding to those suffering from mental illness with an embrace, compassion, love and prayer “to relieve unnecessary pain and also make our parishes more welcoming and Spirit-filled communities.”

The role of a mental health ministry team is to provide spiritual companionship, to listen and enter into relationships; provide practical supports and resources; and provide educational opportunities for mental health awareness to the parish and community.

Mental health ministry is not about solving someone’s problems, but rather listening and accompanying individuals on their journey, according to those involved in this ministry.

Ministry teams receive training in areas such as basic mental illness diagnoses, dementia, communication, spiritual guidance, caregiver support, relationships and boundaries, and confidentiality and safety.

At the conference, representatives of parishes with active mental health ministry teams shared their struggles, offering lessons they’ve learned to the attendees.

Speakers noted that listening and accompanying people doesn’t mean a minister needs to know everything, but can use community resources that are not Catholic, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, community, state and national hotlines, the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, support groups and other faith-based services.

Speakers presented data and facts on mental illness, sharing what puts individuals at greater risk, including childhood experience, domestic violence, other violence and trauma. They also noted the factors that are protective, build resilience and offer hope.

Richard Collyer of the Office of Marriage and Family Life of the Archdiocese of San Francisco discussed how the archdiocese created a framework for parishes and provides support to the parishes.

One of the plenary speakers, Oblate Father Ronald Rolheiser, noted that too often we fail to understand mental fragility, and blame individuals for their mental struggles. He pointed out that those suffering from cancer are never blamed for having the disease, but those struggling with mental illness are urged to “get over it” or are told things will be fine.

For someone involved in mental health ministry, “the soul is not to be saved — the Christian thought — or to be fixed — the psychological thought — but rather the soul is to be listened to,” said Father Rolheiser, a theologian, professor and award-winning author.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Fred Cabras explained that the gift of accompaniment in mental health ministry is about education, presence and being stigma-free, none of which requires one to be a licensed clinician.

Ministers are called to learn about mental illness, to be present with people and be empathetic and compassionate listeners, said the priest, director of social services for the Capuchin’s Soup Kitchen in Detroit.

Ministers must learn to not judge and stigmatize others, he added, but must accept who people are, where they are and where they are going.

Maribel Rodriguez Laguna, a licensed clinical social worker in Dallas, reminded the participants that it is “better to be loved than helped.” Each person wants to be loved, to be cared for, she explained, and mental health ministry is walking with people in a loving way.

As the conference ended, Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability in Washington and a conference sponsor, noted that “it is imperative that the church respond to the needs of the people. There is much work to be done, and can be done, to welcome and support Catholics with mental illness on their journey.”

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Parishes that want to learn more about mental health ministry can visit the website of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministries at https://catholicmhm.org.

Ruddell is a contributor to the Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. A member of St. Thomas More Parish in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, she is a state administrator for suicide prevention.