When Bishop James Conley announced that he was taking a leave of absence as head of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, he began a journey of recovery from depression.
But he was doing more than that, according to a national organization concerned with disabilities. Bishop Conley was sending an important signal that it’s okay to be upfront about one’s mental health issues and that hope and healing are definitely within reach for all who are struggling.
So says the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Mental Illness, which issued a statement this week applauding Bishop Conley for “his complete candor regarding his recent experience of coping with mental illness.”
“Based on Bishop Conley’s public testimony, other individuals in leadership positions are more likely to be upfront about their mental wellbeing, the Council said. “They too are seen as capable of recovery and are finding ways to become more effective and committed to ministry than ever before. An illness is an illness not a weakness of character.”
Getting over fears
After consultation with the apostolic nuncio — the pope’s ambassador to the United States — Bishop Conley requested permission from Pope Francis for a temporary medical leave in order to address issues surrounding anxiety, depression and other issues.
“My doctors have directed me to take a leave of absence for medical and psychological treatment, and to get some much-needed rest. After prayer, and seeking the counsel of my spiritual director, my brother bishops, and my family, I have accepted the medical necessity of a temporary leave of absence,” Bishop Conley wrote in a December 13, 2019, letter to Catholics in the Lincoln Diocese.
He said he wanted to share information about his health “because I hope, in some small way, to help lift the stigma of mental health issues.“
Conley said that for months, he tried to work through his mental health and medical issues on his own through spiritual direction, counseling, and prayer.
“It has been difficult to accept that my mental health problems are real health problems, and not just a defect of my character, especially during a year of difficulty for our diocese,“ he said.
In an interview with Catholic News Agency earlier this month, Conley confided his initial fears that his mental illness would be seen as a sign of weakness. But once he made his announcement, he said, people reached out to him, expressing gratitude for his willingness to share about his experience.
The Mental Health Council encouraged other Catholic leaders to share their testimonies of mental illness and recovery.
“Through the awareness made possible by such testimonies as Bishop Conley’s, doors can open to ensure that anyone seeking help, including family and friends, will have easy access to information, referrals, and good sound advice,” the Council said.