Response to mentally ill starts with awareness

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc

From the Catholic Sentinel, May 13 2009


Every faith community has mentally ill members. From bipolar choir singers to depressed catechists, parish life includes the same conditions as the rest of society.

Some simple steps can be helpful, according to two Portland Catholic mental health experts who are writing a pamphlet for national distribution.

“The starting point is the issue of awareness,” said Dr. Tom Welch, a psychiatrist and member of St. Philip Neri Parish in Portland.

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. May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

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 said the main idea is to extend genuine welcome. “What we need is friendship, support — someone who understands me for who I am.”

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.

“I really believe that the last frontier of our culture and the last frontier of the church is dealing with mental illness,” said Holy Cross Father Ron Raab, an Oregon priest who ministers to mentally ill worshippers. “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.”