It’s not easy to find statements from Catholic Bishops on mental health issues. I don’t think this is because they don’t see mental health as important or they are themselves, insulated from mental health challenges personally or in their families. I know enough Bishops and priests to know their lives are as much a struggle in all ways, as everybody else’s.
I think part of the reason why is simply that, unless it is impacting you directly, we tend to assume that the healthcare system is providing the care people need, and if it is impacting you directly, the stigma associated with mental health challenges often prevents us from saying anything about the experience or commenting on the struggles found in trying to navigate healthcare systems whose resources are primarily directed towards physical health issues.
It was refreshing then, to find that the Bishop’s Conference of Australia put an unprecedented level of time, and thoughtful collaboration into their annual statement on Social Justice issues dedicating the entire document – To Live Life to the Full: Mental Health in Australia Today – to issues surrounding mental health.
Recognizing that the current global pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing mental health issues in individuals, families and communities, the bishops also underscore that our current context has also highlighted issues with a host of social support systems and how those with mental health challenges as well as those who love and support them, fall through the cracks.
This call to re-examine social services, healthcare, and cultural and community responses to mental health issues is one that could be easily echoed within our own Canadian context, including within our Canadian Churches and faith communities. One of the biggest ironies we face currently as people of faith is that, while priests, pastors and parish staff – especially parish secretaries – are often the first place that people turn when experiencing a mental health crisis themselves or in the family. A recent conversation in my own life revolved around the distressing situation of a local family who, having recently lost a family member to suicide, found themselves alone that evening with no support resources available to them until offices opened in the morning – including church offices.
Even when a pastor or parish pastoral worker is contacted, they too find themselves ill-equipped and, not surprisingly, subject to the same biases and stigma as the rest of our culture. There can also be the sense within church pastoral culture that we are not the place to deal with mental health issues, that the area of mental health is best left to professional services which lie outside of the scope of ministry.
In light of this, it is refreshing to see the Australian Bishops wade into this very challenging context beginning with a recognition that Christ himself suffered from challenges to his mental health from his agony in the garden and throughout his passion. Indeed the document points out,
“There are many accounts of psychological distress in the Bible…at one point, Elijah is so despondent that he asks God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4), and Naomi is so distressed that she renames herself Mara or ‘bitter’ (Ruth 1:20).”(pg 13)
In seeking to battle against the kind of social stigma that continues to surround mental health issues in our world, They turn attention to the mystical body of Christ that all are members of;
“People living with mental health challenges are no less members of the Body of Christ than anyone else. People with mental illness and their families often feel isolated from their faith community and thus isolated from God.” (pg 7)
Not to mention that individuals and families struggling with mental health challenges can also become vehicles of grace and windows into the saving activity of God in our midst if we are able to see and listen
This is the hope that we are called to carry with us into the world and into our relationships with all members of this Body of Christ who are suffering. Not a hope preached into pain, but a hope that is borne out of our willingness to accompany others and sit with them in the midst of their pain.
Finally, a truly appreciated the acknowledgment of the invaluable role of lived experience and peer support recognizing the unique gift it brings as “Members of our community with the lived experience of mental ill-health have much to offer in informing our ministry, and the opportunity for peer support shows how mental health and well-being can be fostered in everyone’s lives.” (pg 8)
This has been the experience of peer support in our own family’s struggles with mental health challenges. There is a deep sense of freedom and profound hopefulness when we are able to gather with others walking a similar path and share our struggles, our frustrations, our pain, and the weird moments of hilarity and joy that can be a part of this journey. Peer support, as these Bishops point out, is that essential ingredient where the Body of Christ enters into each other’s suffering, and find grace, hope, and resurrection.
Peace and God Bless,