In this exclusive interview, the President of the Association, Deacon Ed Shoener, explains how the Church can become a place of openness where people who live with a mental health disorder or illness are welcomed and loved unconditionally.
As his prayer intention for November, Pope Francis called on all Catholics to “pray that people who suffer from depression or burnout will find support and a light that opens them up to life.” This is not, at all, the first time the Holy Father has touched on the subject. The Vatican has long been vocal about the need for prayers and resources surrounding mental health struggles, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered a massive spike in mental health crises worldwide. For the month of November, the Pope calls on Catholic Christians to particularly remember and intercede for those who “experience extreme exhaustion—mental, emotional, affective, and physical exhaustion.”
His request was included in a video made with the guidance and support of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers (ACMHM).
The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministerswas born out of a dire to respond to the ongoing mental health crisis. The President of the Association, Deacon Ed Shoener, was inspired to join with other dedicated people to establish the Association after his daughter Katie died by suicide in 2016, after a long battle with bipolar disorder. Katie’s obituary went viral, and was reported on around the world since it encouraged an open and honest conversation about mental illness and suicide. The response to his daughter’s obituary made it clear to Deacon Shoener that there is a real need for mental health ministry in the Church. Aleteia interviewed Deacon Schoener to get to know more about this ministry.
A.- Most people beyond the pews would not even think of stepping into a church when they are looking for professional mental health assistance. How can ACMHMbe introduced to the unaffiliated?
ACMHM can evangelize and bring the Good News to the unaffiliated. When the Church becomes known as a place of openness where people who live with a mental health disorder or illness are welcomed and loved unconditionally, then the unaffiliated will be introduced to the love of Christ in action. The unaffiliated will be drawn to a community where people who live with a mental health disorder or illness experience unconditional love, without the demand for a cure. It is important to be clear that ACMHM is ministry, not mental health treatment. ACMHM can help people find professional mental health resources in their community and support them in their recovery, but the primary focus of ACMHM is to offer people with a mental health disorder or illness a place of belonging that is free of stigma and discrimination and filled with the love of Christ.
A.- All of the great saints in the Catholic tradition who have written on spiritual, inner life, have certainly gone through some stages in their life that we might understand as having to do with, if not mental illness, at least extreme mental and emotional exhaustion. I think of Ignatius’ scruples, or John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul. What would you say is the main difference between ACMHM and spiritual direction?
ACMHM is a ministry that is offered openly through a parish community. In contrast, spiritual direction is typically offered one-on-one in private. While spiritual direction is important in helping a person understand and grow in their own interior spiritual life; ACMHM builds up the entire community.ACMHM recognizes that persons living with a mental illness have much to offer the Church and the community because people who live with a mental illness can have deep and profound insights into suffering and the mercy of God. God’s grace is not limited by any condition, including mental illness. People who live with a mental illness can be especially close to God and live holy lives. ACMHM works to eliminate the stigma and discrimination that people living with a mental illness encounter in the Church and in human society and in this way build up a Church community that is more open, inviting and compassionate.
A.- Catholic ACMHM try to promote an open and honest conversation about mental illness and suicide. Would you say this is something the broader pro-life movement is now embracing as one of its concerns?
Suicide reduction is definitely a pro-life issue. On average about 125 to 130 people per day die from suicide in the United States. That is far too many. We need to declare war on suicide and demand that the suicide rates be dramatically reduced. Suicide differs from other pro-life issues in that suicide is almost always rooted in psychological disorders, mental illness or unbearable anguish that causes a person to irrationally believe that suicide is their only option and that the world would be better off without them. We can reduce suicide when there is better mental health care treatment and a more compassionate culture that respects and values all human life, including people who suffer from mental illnesses and other disorders. The pro-life movement is increasingly recognizing this as a concern. For example, I will be speaking about mental health and suicide at the major pro-life walk in Los Angeles, called OneLife LA, this year on Sanctity of Life Sunday on January 22, 2022.
A.- Are there enough laymen actually responding to this ongoing crisis? When I say “responding” I do not only mean serving others, but also acknowledging the need to actually get help? Can priests also have access to these services?
Self-stigmatization is a major problem. Far too many people are reluctant to acknowledge their mental health challenges and illnesses and fail to get treatment. Far too many Catholics erroneously think that their depression, anxiety or other mental health problems are a type of moral failing or character flaw, when in fact these conditions are illnesses that are treatable with good medical care. Mental health care, psychological support and psychiatric medicines are gifts from God that can help us manage and overcome the suffering brought on by these illnesses.
Priests can play a critical leadership role by acknowledging their own mental health challenges and be willing to openly discuss their need for mental health care. This will help normalize open conversations about mental health and lead to healthier parish communities – and a healthier clergy.
A.- The Pope has called on Catholic Christians to pray for those who “experience extreme exhaustion—mental, emotional, affective, and physical exhaustion.” Is there something else that can be done to attend this seemingly silent yet grave crisis?
One of those most insightful things the Pope said in his reflection on his November prayer intention for those suffering from depression is “often, we should just simply listen in silence, because we cannot go and tell someone, “No, life’s not like that. Listen to me, I’ll give you the solution. There’s no solution.” This is the heart of accompaniment. We must be willing to accept and walk with people who live with mental illness and disorders without demanding a cure.
We certainly must also encourage people to get professional medical care. The Pope said that we should not forget that psychological counseling is indispensable, useful and effective. But we are body, mind, and soul, so while medical and mental health care are necessary, spiritual care is equally necessary. As Pope Francis said, “Jesus’ words also help. It comes to my mind and heart: ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’”