The Catholic Church and its parishes, like much of the world, has long avoided questions surrounding mental health, says Fr. Stephan Kappler president and chief psychologist at Southdown Institute. The Archdiocese of Toronto is opening up the conversation with its inaugural Mental Health Sunday May 7. CNS photo

Tackling the stigma around mental health

  • April 13, 2023

For the parish that seeks to know, understand and draw a little closer to suffering — the suffering of Christ on the Cross or the suffering of their brothers and sisters — there is a resource hidden in the pews, quietly praying. People who struggle with depression, addiction, anxiety, compulsions and social phobias have suffered, will suffer and know suffering. The mentally ill and those struggling with mental health can teach a parish about suffering.

But too often, Catholic parishes just don’t want to know, Fr. Stephan Kappler told The Catholic Register. Come the Archdiocese of Toronto’s first-ever “Mental Health Sunday” May 7, Kappler hopes a conversation about mental health gets an airing in Toronto’s 225 Catholic parishes.

“We constantly see how strong the stigma is when it comes to mental health still, in many of our cultural communities and in many of our faith communities — moreso than in the rest of the population,” the president and chief psychologist of the Southdown Institute in Holland Landing, Ont., north of Toronto, said. “Why not do something about it?”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in Canada, often dominated by the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. May 15 is the feast day of St. Dymphna, the seventh-century Irish princess and refugee, who has been called upon by people who suffer from mental illness and distress since well before Pope Pius XII in 1957 approved new prayers on the subjects of mental illness and distress in the office for her feast day.

As a psychologist, Kappler knows well how judgment, shame and embarrassment can be deadly when it comes to mental health. Delayed diagnosis and delayed treatment kick off a downward spiral of mental health issues with ever more severe symptoms. The symptoms themselves lead to social exclusion and discrimination, which robs people of their ability to work or form relationships — robs them of hope.

The word for this confluence of judgment, shame and embarrassment is stigma. It happens in parishes and Kappler wants to put a stop to it.

“We are hoping that this campaign would allow priests and lay pastoral ministers in the parish to readily refer people (for diagnosis and treatment), but also listen to them, accept that their struggle is something real when they’re talking about mental health stuff,” Kappler said.

Just getting that far can make any parish a better community and a better church, said Deacon Ed Schoener of the Diocese of Scranton, Penn. When the community really listens and accepts someone who has suffered with mental health challenges, it will deepen the parish’s faith, he said.

“They have profound insights into suffering, into their need to rely on God,” said Schoener.

Having struggled with depression and lost a teenaged daughter to suicide, Schoener founded the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, which exists to encourage parishes to start a mental health ministry and to support these ministries already working in parishes.

“This is a ministry, not mental health care,” Schoener said.

As a ministry in parishes — now active in more than 40 U.S. dioceses and several countries — a huge focus is on combating stigma, even “outright discrimination,” Schoener said.

Pastoral responses to mental health struggles are often tragically different from how a priest or parish representative might respond to physical health challenges, he said. Mental health issues should not be treated as moral failings, and people need something more than encouragement to pray more.

“I wish there was some magical prayer that would make the depression go away,” he said. “There isn’t.”

But medication has helped. To get that medication, Schoener had to be encouraged to go to a doctor. But the deacon also wanted more than a doctor could offer.

“We’re mind, body and spirit. The spiritual side of (mental health patients’) lives is not getting the attention it needs,” he said.

In parishes where he has pastored or helped out as a visiting priest, Kappler has seen the wrong response to mental health issues — questions about prayer life and admonishments about giving into sin, particularly when it comes to addiction issues. As a psychologist and a priest, it makes him cringe.

“Seriously? It’s a diagnosis,” Kappler said.

Kappler has also seen what happens when he speaks about mental health, sometimes only in passing, during a homily.

“I can guarantee this — every time in a homily I talk about mental health, or I make a reference to depression or to suicide (God forbid) — I guarantee that you have a line of people afterwards who will come up and want to talk. They will say, ‘Thank you, Father, for my cousin is struggling with this, my mom, my sister,’ or the person themselves,” he said.

The good news for Toronto parishes is that there are plenty of resources, plenty of places to refer a parishioner struggling with mental health, from Catholic Family Services to Southdown itself, which offers outpatient services for lay Catholics.

“Are we offering treatment in the parish? No,” Kappler said. “Are we offering a listening ear to accompany people? Are we maybe forming a ministry where people feel they are welcome in this parish? Are they welcomed and valued in this parish — with their mental illness, with their mental health struggle?”

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