Southdown's CEO Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit. Photo courtesy of Southdown

At Southdown, religious learn to take care of themselves before taking care of others

  • October 10, 2016

When residents first enter the Southdown Institute in the small township of East Gwillimbury, Ont., north of Toronto, they are usually lethargic and depressed. They are religious or clergy who have been sent there by the leaders of their diocese or their community, to be treated for addictions and mental health issues.

Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit is the first and last contact residents have with Southdown’s programming. She said there are many who don’t like to look her in the eye when they first meet during the orientation meeting, but after 14 weeks in the program, it’s a new person she sees.

“As they prepare to leave residency, their steps are lighter, they walk with a sense of freedom or new life, more relaxed, more playful, happier, have found the joy in their life,” she said. “It is the most rewarding part of my job. It gives me a clear picture of what the needs are that we’re addressing and serving.”

As the Chief Executive Officer of Southdown, Heiderscheit said it is her duty and privilege to create personal connections with all the religious and clergy the institute serves. Each individual has unique needs, but all treatments and services must lead to holistic healing. This is the measure she uses to evaluate the success of the program.

“When people come here, one of the things they’re faced with is the anxiety and the fear of looking inward,” said Heiderscheit.

“It’s a common human challenge.”

After seven years working at Southdown, beginning as a continuing care co-ordinator, Heiderscheit has seen it all. The most common challenge residents face is slowing down and focusing on self-care.

“They’re all ministers. They’re all serving people,” she said. “Coming here, they have to quiet down and take a look at what’s going on inside. They have to reflect of where God is in their life.”

There are several prongs that contribute to a client’s mental, psychological and spiritual health, but many residents also share a common problem.

Heiderscheit said with an aging clergy and religious community, they are often spread too thin. Their work will often take precedence over their own personal needs.

The first obstacle is to confront the stigma of mental health care. Like the rest of the mental health care system, new residents of Southdown must conquer the negative attitude towards mental illness.

“It’s a stigma in society very definitely and religious and clergy minister are no different,” said Heiderscheit.

“The additional distress, I think, is they’re in such high-profile positions. To feel that they may not be perfect enough... What are people going to think of me if I have to have some help.”

Heiderscheit said they often fear how the time away from their ministry will affect their work when they return. And priests often worry how their parish community will see them after their treatment.

“The churches that these individuals belong to would be no different than the general society,” said Heiderscheit. “Society might have an image of if they’re my pastor or my mental health counsellor... how would they feel safe and secure in coming to them with their problems, if they themselves have problems?”

But Heiderscheit said it is important to remind the religious and clergy that come to Southdown that they are human. Although they have committed their life to serving others, they must also take the time to care for their own wellbeing.

Heiderscheit takes pride in the comprehensive and holistic service Southdown provides for its residents.

As the institute continues to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the staff is working to expand the services provided.

Heiderscheit said the priority right now is to expand the subsidization program.

“Our greatest need is to build up and sustain a subsidy so we can assist those who do not have sufficient funds for residency,” she said.

“Many of our people come from communities and dioceses in mission areas and they provide services in areas and to people who have limited resources. It is costly to provide quality residential care.”

For information on how to support Southdown Institute, visit

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