NYS Bishops on Care for the Mentally Ill: “Our Duty Is to Welcome Them with Openness and Affection”

In 1980, New York State decided to take a look at how the mentally ill were being treated in society. They found some horrifying news as they looked at the state psychiatric hospitals. All it took for one to be “committed” to a state run psychiatric institution was the signatures of two psychiatrists. Obviously that system was abused and many people suffered because of it.

They decided to reform the law and they released many people from these institutions without much of a community-based plan to assist and care for them.

34 years later, the mentally ill still need attention. The stigma of mental illness still exists in society and we often deem people with mental illness as dangerous and unstable.

The truth is that “one in four adults, some 61.5 million people suffer from some form of mental illness.” For some, talk therapy with a psychologist is enough treatment needed to bring them back up to the borderline of good mental health. For others, medication is needed to correct a chemical imbalance. In either case, treatment works and is desperately needed. It is a serious community issue that needs community-based health care workers and much commitment to help people care for themselves and to seek whatever treatment might be necessary.

I am proud to say that our New York State Catholic Bishops have taken up this cause with a pastoral letter called “For I am Lonely and Afflicted” that I encourage you to all read in its entirety. They wrote a similar letter in 1980 and I am glad that they have re-affirmed this as a social justice issue for all Catholics to be aware.

Here’s a highlight that I found both touching and challenging for all of us:

“…with regard to developing “attitudes of acceptance and compassion” in our Catholic population. Let us be clear, it is our duty and the duty of every pastor, every chaplain, every religious education director and Catholic school principal, and all others in positions of Church leadership at every level to welcome with openness and affection those men, women and children who are afflicted with any form of mental illness and to integrate them into the life of the Church to the fullest extent possible.

Furthermore, all Catholics are called to be welcoming of this population in their churches, schools and communities. We must ask ourselves, have we always been as charitable as can be when we encounter those with mental illness? Have we sought to include them and make them feel welcome? Have we avoided the temptation to shun those who are different? Have we been open to residential housing or community mental health centers in our neighborhoods? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then we must again look to the example of Jesus given to us in the Gospels, repent for when we have failed, and resolve going forward to mirror His love and mercy for all God’s children.”

This is a call to all of us to ask “What are we doing for those with mental health diagnoses in our parishes, campuses, hospitals and neighborhoods?” How might we lobby as Catholics for greater care for those with mental illness? How might Jesus be calling us to stretch our hearts just a bit farther to care for those who may desperately need help and for those who have sought treatment and find themselves still ostracized by society?

I know quite a few people who have faced these issues either personally, or because they know someone with mental illness. Mental illness is no different chemically, than having a cholesterol imbalance that needs medication to regulate it. Treated properly, most people live rather normal lives with few, if any, issues surfacing. Gone untreated, severe problems occur that often go beyond the individual and can effect whole communities.

We need to be open, more open, to people with mental illnesses. We need to work with our communities in order to help people get treatment that they need. At Canisius, we work closely with our counseling center and have set up several days where they use our conference room for screenings for depression and anxiety. We’ve walked students at risk over to the counseling center and have been met there by caring and wonderful people who do life-changing work for so many people. The pastoral letter points out that “About 20 percent of youth experience severe mental disorders in a given year.” I would suspect that number is higher on any college campus.

As a spiritual director, I often refer people when I notice the signs of mental illness, most often depression. I’m glad that younger people are a bit more open to professional counseling and the need for medication when it warrants it. I hope that trend continues because we need to Stop the Stigma of mental illness in our society.

Today let us be grateful to our Bishops, in this case, those in my home state. Bishop Malone is my own Bishop here in Buffalo and I’m proud to call him a friend and also proud that he is but one of the authors of this document along with his brother bishops and the staff of many at Catholic Charities who know all too well, the need for the stigma to end and for community-based mental health care.

So today, let us pray for those with mental illness, that they may be able to receive the treatment that they need. Let us pray for those who care for those who have mental health diagnoses that they might be good advocates and be patient during the tough times. And let’s pray for each one of us, that we might have the courage to stand with those who are most often ostracized in society, to call for greater care and a greater need for quality intervention, when others cannot speak for themselves and need care. Let us greet these people with love and with dignity. As the Bishops point out, this is what Jesus did. And so let me close with the words of the psalmist:

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart;
and free me from my anguish.
(PS 25: 16-17)

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