Reaching out to those with mental illness

From the Catholic Sentinel, March 19 2009

This parishioner would wash her doughnuts in the baptismal font.

She camped overnight outside the church doors and added words to the liturgical responses in a loud voice. She stole things.

Outside the Downtown Chapel in Portland

Outside the Downtown Chapel in Portland

One Christmas, just when other members of the Downtown Chapel in Portland were getting fed up, the woman, who has schizophrenia, went up to the crib scene. Would she take something? Would she knock figures over?

Instead, she pulled out a fine, folded purple blanket and put it in the manger, her gift to God.

Though few parishes face a situation this dramatic, every faith community has mentally ill members. From bi-polar choir singers to depressed catechists, parish life includes the same puzzling conditions as the rest of society.

Some simple steps can be be helpful, say two Portland Catholic mental health experts who have written a pamphlet for national distribution.

“The starting point is the issue of awareness,” says Dr. Tom Welch, a psychiatrist and member of St. Philip Neri Parish in Portland. “Mental illness is so common. Every family either has a member with a mental illness or knows somebody with mental illness. It is so prevelant but so often invisible.”

Welch is writing the pamphlet, based on an article for Church magazine, with Dorothy Coughlin, director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Parishes may want to be supportive of mentally ill parishioners, but don’t know how.

The Coughlin-Welch pamphlet will give simple suggestions, insisting that no one needs to be a mental health expert to do what should be done.

Praying for those with mental illness during the petitions is a good start. That offers not only spiritual aid but also public recognition. Coughlin says the main idea is to extend genuine welcome.

“What is it that gives any of us hope when we are ill?” she says. “What we need is friendship, support — someone who understands me for who I am.”

Parish education programs on the topic and facts in the church bulletin would help, say the two writers. A 12-week seminar called Family to Family has proven effective at many churches.

Dr. Welch says the parish can offer what mentally ill people need the most — relationships.

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability has given a grant to the Archdiocese of Portland to raise awareness about mental illness at parishes. That is paying for the production of a DVD for Catholics. Oregon parishes also can look to the Downtown Chapel for experience.

Holy Cross Father Ron Raab is in his eighth year at the chapel, a church with many homeless and mentally ill worshipers.

“I really believe that the last frontier of our culture and the last frontier of the church is dealing with mental illness,” Father Raab says. “It is something we fear. We can talk about helping ‘those poor people,’ but when it comes to being in relationship, which is what the Gospel is all about, we have not learned that when it comes to mental illness.”