Catholics struggling with mental illness and their families who want to help them will soon find more formal support in the Diocese of Phoenix. Bishop John Dolan has announced the opening of an office dedicated to the Catholic Mental Health Service.
“There are many people dealing with loved ones who are in crisis,” Bishop Dolan told CNA Sept. 19.
The bishop hopes the new office will “let people know they are not alone when it comes to mental health.” He stressed the need to help people speak up and communicate about mental illness.
Bishop Dolan resigned from office September 4 in Sts. -Simon and Jude Cathedral during a “memorial mass” for those who died by suicide, the diocesan newspaper The Catholic Sun reported.
During the Mass, the bishop led a procession of clergy. Along with others from the community, they placed carnations in baskets in front of a shrine in the cathedral. Each carnation represented a person who died by suicide. The diocese had asked for the names of the suicide victims to be remembered during Mass and received more than 1,200.
The subject is personal for the new bishop. In a video message, “Sharing My Story: A Life Changed by Suicide,” posted on the diocesan YouTube channel, Bishop Dolan shared how his family lost an older brother, a sister, and their husband to suicide.
“Losing a loved one is very, very difficult. Losing a loved one to suicide is doubly difficult,” Bishop Dolan said in the video. “I’ve had support from the church, but not ongoing support, but real opportunities to keep talking about it. I buried so much that I never really thought about growing the way I should have grown.”
Bishop Dolan, installed as Bishop of Phoenix on August 2, was co-editor of the pastoral manual, Responding to Suicide.
Mental illnesses are relatively common. The National Institutes for Mental Health says that as of 2020, nearly one in five US adults — approximately 53 million people — were living with a mental illness. An estimated 14.2 million adults in the US – 5.6% of the adult population – have a serious mental illness. Of these, only 65% had received psychiatric treatment in the previous year.
The planned focus of the Office of Catholic Psychiatry includes psychiatric education for clergy and lay people. The office’s goal is to provide opportunities for Catholics to find support in accompanying friends and family who are struggling with mental illness.
The new office will provide priests with a mental health “first aid kit” to help them counsel or assist those in need, Bishop Dolan said.
The educational aspect will aim to help clergy and religious learn more about mental health and receive basic training “so they don’t jump to conclusions and over-spiritualize their behavior,” Bishop Dolan said. These educational efforts should help inculcate “a broad view of what mental health is” in clergy, so they don’t “try to solve the problems on their own.”
Education is provided by the National Council for Mental Well-Being. Founded in 1969, the Council is an advocacy and education group representing more than 3,100 mental health and drug use treatment organizations.
“They’re basically trying to educate them on what to expect and what to look for,” Bishop Dolan said. “It is strictly clinical in training; it does not focus on any of the spiritual aspects”, although spiritual help is of course a help for such crises.
The Mental Health Organization’s First Aid program has trained more than 2.6 million people across the United States to “recognize, understand, and respond to the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use problems.” The training covers common signs and symptoms of mental health issues and challenges related to drug use, how to deal with a person in crisis and how to connect a person with help. It also includes content on trauma, substance use, and self-care.
The psychological sciences have a role to play in Catholic thought and action, Bishop Dolan said.
“We see the science of psychology and psychiatry as a precious gift to our human person. We shouldn’t shy away from that,” he told CNA.
The aim is not to increase the burden on the priests. Rather, they will have a resource to direct those in need to. Bishop Dolan intends to establish centers in each of the diocese’s 15 deaneries for people suffering from mental health issues, behavioral issues, trauma, or grief.
Bishop Dolan said he was not yet familiar with the details of how the diocese’s current seminarians would be prepared.
Speaking of seminarians in general, he said that “counselling may be an aspect of their training,” and that prospective priests only get “little tastes” of psychology unless they take courses on the subject at their university or seminary.
A 2016 document from the Dicastery for the Clergy, relation fundamentalis, deals with the formation of seminarians. It states that the “useful contribution” of psychology to pastoral theology will benefit the formation of seminarians to become future pastors.
The Office of Catholic Psychiatry will also have an advocacy role. She will seek to improve government policies and increase funding that deal with mental health. Bishop Dolan said this will help “ensure that mental health is at the forefront of all our conversations, especially as we see more and more people with mental disorders on the streets.”
According to the bishop, there are “a whole range of reasons” why some homeless people live on the streets, including trauma, mental disorders or drug use disorders. Experiencing homelessness creates additional anxiety and mental health issues, he added.
The office, which is scheduled to open in January 2023, is financially supported by the Phoenix-based Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. Responsible for the organization of the new office are Anne Vargas-Leveriza of the Diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Young People and Maria Chavira, the Chancellor of the Diocese.
Bishop Dolan, a former auxiliary bishop of San Diego, referred to previous Catholic statements such as the 2018 letter from California bishops on caring for people with mental illness.
He said Catholic dioceses in San Diego, San Francisco and Orange, California, are already working to address mental health, often with the involvement of other diocesan departments. He pointed to the work of the Catholic Institute of Mental Health at the University of San Diego, which aims to train mental health leaders at the diocesan and parish levels in the United States