Jennifer Fitz is the author of The How-To Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You (Our Sunday Visitor 2020). Find her online at JenniferFitz.com.
While putting together the final edits on The How-to Book of Evangelization, I reached out to Catholics with disabilities for specific ways that parishes could be more welcoming. Cathy Lins, a national speaker and resource on trauma and mental health for Catholic parishes and nonprofits, got in touch with me right away.
Why was I so thrilled to hear from her? “Research shows that when people are in distress, church is the first place the turn,” Cathy explained to me. “Unfortunately, many parishes aren’t equipped to support those dealing with psychological trauma. I’ve heard many horror stories of the hurtful treatment people have received at their local parish.” As a result, she says, they turn to yoga, nature, “anything but Jesus Christ and his Church.”
Today I want to talk about two important concepts in mental health support that can revolutionize the way your parish approaches ministry to and with Catholics struggling with mental health challenges.
Understanding the Mental Health Continuum
The fundamental principle that Cathy shared with me is the concept that mental health, like physical health, happens on a spectrum:
Healthy: We’re rested, calm, feeling in control and in good humor.
Reacting: We become nervous, anxious, irritable, angry, impatient, sleepy, low-energy. We experience an increase in impulsive thinking and behavior.
Injured: We experience anxiety, panic, angry outbursts, noticeable fatigue, exhaustion; loss of emotional control; poor decision-making and inappropriate risk-taking.
Illness: We are besieged by serious symptoms, such as regular panic attacks, memory loss, and significant inability to concentrate; as a result we may become suicidal or experience legal consequences of our illness-related behaviors.
“In thinking about mental health,” Cathy explains, “we tend to leap right to thinking about ‘mental illness.’ But we all have mental health, and we all move back and forth along the continuum throughout our lives.”
Whether it be the stress of recent events, grief at the loss of a loved one, wounds from past trauma, or the flaring up of an underlying addiction or mental illness, everyone goes through times when we aren’t as mentally healthy as we’d like to be.
The goal of parish mental health support is to help people move toward better health. For someone with serious trauma or brain injury, the challenge for parishes is to remain faithful and steadfast for the long haul. “When people come into church and they aren’t instantly healed, we push them away, and they slip out through the back door. As we look at evangelization efforts, and living as missionary disciples, or daily parish activities, we have to ask ourselves: How do I accompany someone who may not be healed right now or ever on this side of heaven?”
Safety and Support
Effective mental health ministry — and this is true regardless of the conditions and constraints we’re operating under — focuses on meeting people’s needs for safety and support.
Create Contact: “This is where people tend to break down: They feel like nobody cares. They think, ‘No one’s going to miss me if I’m gone.’” Phone calls, cards, care packages and virtual meetings are all ways to stay in touch during forced isolation. Cathy emphasizes that it’s important to check on all parishioners.
As parishes re-open, look for ways to accompany parishioners who are struggling. Cathy notes that this doesn’t need to involve a massive program. “Can I bring meals? Can I sit with you? Bring you tea?”
Normalize Mental Health Support: Parish staff can use simple, efficient, low-cost strategies to communicate that caring for mental health is a normal part of being Catholic. “That could be posters in the bathroom or on the bulletin board letting people know about counseling, addiction treatment or assistance in escaping domestic violence. Use the announcements to let people know about ministries or community resources, include intentions for mental health concerns in the prayer intentions at Mass, and offer Masses for those living with chronic mental illness.”
Cathy observes that tiny tweaks make a huge difference. “For example, mention that hospital visits include the psychiatry ward and addiction treatment centers, and that (subject to the facility’s policies) a priest or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion can come visit and bring the sacraments.” For priests who are inexperienced or intimidated by this ministry, find a lay expert trained in mental health support to come along and provide guidance and support during the hospital visit.
Prep Frontline Staff: “In a crisis, people will show up at the front desk and ask for an appointment. They may seem abrupt or visibly distressed.” Some basic training in “Mental Health First Aid” can equip parish staff to know how to respond. She advises: “If the person is calm, cool and collected, schedule an appointment. If it’s obviously a crisis situation, mental health first aid kicks in.” This includes finding ways to keep the person as safe and comfortable as possible while awaiting the appropriate professional help.
“Protective actions are the priority. Protective actions and a referral to a health care provider are both part of Mental Health First Aid.” Contact your county health department and request their directory of providers and services so you know what is available to help.
Provide Training for the Whole Parish: Cathy suggests that a parish nurse or mental health professional from the community offer presentations (live or by Zoom) at regular intervals. Topics can include depression, grief counseling and addiction treatment, but also should cover the basics of creating a safe social environment. “Teach people to safeguard privacy, such as not posting photos, names, etc., without permission.”
She warns that such educational events can involve surprising levels of turnout. “Usually no one will sign up in advance, but the room may be overflowing at the event itself.”
Where to Learn More
For most of us, thinking about a parish mental health ministry is a bit overwhelming. To that end, Cathy Lins has recently put together a Facebook discussion group, Trauma-Informed Parishes, where she posts informative educational links. In addition to her own extensive experience in community training on mental health support in both English and Spanish, her ministry network includes priests who can consult on the pastoral questions specific to the clergy.
She writes, “Interested in some initial training? Join us in our Facebook group for live one-hour sessions in September and October. Registration information is on the Facebook page.” Cathy adds that she can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.