Deacon Tom Lambert is co-chair and founder of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago Council on Mental Illness and co-chair and founder of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Mental Illness Council located in Washington D.C. He is author of the booklet “Mental Illness and Parish Outreach” and frequent speaker on Church outreach to people with mental illness and families.
A Matter of Justice
The magnitude of mental illness in our communities is staggering. According to the Surgeon General, one in every five Americans experiences a mental disorder in any given year and half of all Americans have such disorders at some time in their lives. These illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, anxiety just to name a few can occur in any of us, regardless of age, gender, economic status or ethnicity. The most severe cases touch one in 22 individuals.
The stigma surrounding mental illnesses reinforces the old false stereotypes that keep people from seeking treatment and getting help or even knowing where to get help. The stigma persists today despite what we now know — that mental illnesses are disorders associated with changes in the brain’s chemistry and function. Mental illnesses are not due to poor parenting, not due to a weak character, or certainly not due to a lack of faith. It’s not something you can just pull yourself out of. Just as you wouldn’t tell someone who has cancer to “just get over it,” if you have depression or any major mental illness, you need help for your illness.
Many people sitting in the pews have been touched in some way by mental illness, either themselves, a family member, a friend or co-worker. In my own case my Grandfather died by suicide, I had an aunt who suffered from severe depression, and my oldest daughter is diagnosed with a major mental illness. Sadly, many individuals and families suffer in silence or stop coming to church due to the stigma. As a result, they become detached from their faith community and their spirituality, important sources of healing, wholeness and hope in times of personal darkness.
This is also a justice issue. In recent headlines we have read how Cook County (IL) does a poor job addressing the needs of people with mental illness in prisons and jails. The same is true of the needs of people with mental illness who are homeless, people in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and those living with their families. The recent cutbacks to an already underfunded mental health system have increased the need for pastoral as well as clinical care.
As people of faith we can support individuals and families by listening to others with non-judgmental unconditional love. By supporting people for who they are, not who we think they should be. By using language that gives hope and reinforces that we all have dignity and we all have value. We all want to be known for the person we are – not the illness we may have. And by letting our political leaders know that we stand with Pope Francis’ call to give priority to the most vulnerable.
Please pray for people with mental illness, their families, and those who help and care for them.