Last month the National Catholic Network on Mental Illness produced a helpful list of ways congregations can become welcoming communities to people with mental illnesses and their families. Here is an abridgment of that article.
It is important that persons with mental illness feel welcomed and supported within the faith community. As people of faith, we do this by loving unconditionally. Faith communities should be places of non-judgmental love for its members experiencing mental illness and for those who have a family member with mental illness. Then parishioners can feel safe to acknowledge their needs and overcome their fears of rejection.
A faith community can establish that reputation with persons who have a mental illness and their families in a variety of ways. It is important to recognize the contributions people with mental illness can make to the church’s life. Then the ministry becomes mutual and we live our faith together and find solutions together.
- Support. An integral part of recovery for people with mental illness is to have a supportive faith community to rely on for spiritual needs in the recovery process. A very effective means for a parish to help is to befriend persons with mental illness and listen compassionately to them, taking them seriously and offering them the simple gift of presence. It often takes time, even a year, to gain the trust elicited by compassion and care.
- Caring Clergy. People with mental illness and their families will often come to a clergy person and parish leaders first when symptoms of the illness strike. It is important for clergy and leaders to listen with compassion and to know when to refer people to mental health professionals rather than attempt to solve psychological problems themselves or dismiss the problem. It is also important to know where in the community one can refer people for competent professional help and services. It is equally important to stay in touch with the person and/or their family after a referral, as major mental illness can cause a crisis of faith.
- Intercessory Prayer. In congregational prayers, incorporate specific prayers for those suffering with schizophrenia, manic depression, anxiety disorders, etc. This lets the Faith Community know that the community prays and cares for people with mental illness.
- Preach on the subject. Include references to persons with mental illness and their issues in messages about social justice, caring for the poor, discrimination, and compassionate outreach to others. Avoid words or phrases in all sermons and communications that add to stigmatizing those who have mental illness.
- Invite Pastoral Care. Let faith community members know that their leaders want to visit people with mental illness when they are hospitalized. As for any major disease, the individual and family will have questions about God, faith, and “why me.” Ministerial presence and support will help them to understand and accept that this disease of the brain is not a punishment from God and not due to lack of faith.
- Engage public policy. Give the peace and justice ministry the opportunity to get involved in the systemic problems that affect persons with mental illness. At least one half of the prison population and at least one third of the homeless population lives with mental illness. The failure of the mental health system to meet the basic needs of persons with mental illness and their families is a moral issue for us as a very wealthy country that has the means to provide not only basic services but much more. Programs for persons with mental illness are the last to receive budget increases and the first to receive budget cuts. This often creates a continuous cycle of crisis for people with mental illness and their families. This is morally unconscionable. Advocacy is needed with the political leaders and the legislative process. Faith communities can write letters and/or advocate directly with their elected officials to bring about justice to these inequities.
- Housing and Employment. Housing and jobs are critical to the recovery process and to the dignity of the individual. Many people in our Faith Communities own businesses and housing or work in the real estate industry. Faith Communities can encourage their members to help find jobs and places to live for persons with mental illness.
- Provide Information. Publicize the issues in the church bulletin or newsletter through a series of short articles on the subject. It is important to have a series of articles rather than one or two. A series also gives a chance to explain the facts, the moral implications, and what we as Faith Communities can do.
- Healing prayer. Faith communities have to be particularly sensitive in this area as there is a history of misguided prayer in the past. Mental illness is not demon possession or God’s specifically giving us a cross to bear or God’s lack of love for us. Since it is an illness like any other illness the healing prayer should reflect the biological nature. We should pray for a healing and continue with sound medical practices.
- Adult Education. Host speakers, workshops, and educational events for families of persons with a mental illness. NAMI groups can help organize these gatherings. Families in crisis need spiritual guidance and advice. The long term nature of serious mental illnesses means the family also needs long term spiritual guidance. NAMI has an excellent “Family to Family” program that assists families with education and networking.
- Friendship. Peer to Peer ministry is an important outreach for persons suffering with major mental illness. People with mental illness often do not have a circle of friends that care for them. An important element to recovery and healing is a caring community. The peer is not a professional but is a person who is caring and able to be a good listener. Peer to peer program information is available through NAMI Peer to Peer.
- Worship. Have an annual liturgical celebration of the lives of persons with a mental illness, their families, and mental health workers/professionals. This gathering should be celebratory and positive with a gathering after the liturgy to share fellowship and conversation.
- Promote the dignity of the individual. God loves us each as we are. Use “people first language” e.g., phrases like “people with a mental illness” rather than “the mentally ill.” No one wants to be known as a disease.