In a pastoral letter, the bishops say the mental health crisis is an 'urgent call' for the Church

California’s Catholic bishops have issued a letter on serving those who struggle with mental illness, stressing that it is an “essential part of the pastoral care of the church.”

The letter, “Hope and Healing,” was published in English, Spanish and Vietnamese on the website of the California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, on May 1, the start of Mental Health Awareness Month.

The bishops said that all Catholics are “called to provide hope and healing to others” and in recognising that every human life is sacred, they should not only “attend to those in our midst who suffer in body or mind” but also work with families, mental health professionals, community organisations and all individuals and institutions engaged in such work.

The bishops pointed out that people with mental illness often suffer in silence, whereas those with a physical illness are more likely to receive an outpouring of sympathy and support from their parish and community.

“This should not be so in our civic communities and cannot be so in our Catholic communities. Those living with a mental illness should never bear these burdens alone, nor should their families who struggle heroically to assist their loved ones,” the letter said, emphasising that Christians must “encounter them, accompany them, comfort them and help bear their burdens in solidarity with them – offering our understanding, prayers and tangible and ongoing assistance.”

The California bishops also identified the scope and burden of mental illness today, noting that the National Institute of Mental Health says one in five adults in the US suffered from a mental disorder over the last year and nearly 10 million American adults – about one in 25 – have a mental illness that is severe enough to cause serious functional impairment. And 20 percent of adolescents currently have, or previously had, a seriously debilitating mental disorder, according to the institute.

The bishops point out the increase of depression and anxiety for young people, the rise in suicides from men and women in nearly every age group, the number of drug overdoses and alcohol-related death, and the current opioid crisis.

They note that the nation’s jails and homeless populations are filled with people suffering from mental illness, which they called “unacceptable.”

“These crises of our time represent an urgent call to all Catholics. We must respond,” the bishop letter said.

One response is not to stigmatise or judge those suffering a mental illness because it is “neither a moral failure nor a character defect” nor a “sign of insufficient faith or weakness of will.”

The bishops also noted that Christian faith and religious practice “do not immunise a person against mental illness” noting that leaders and even saints “suffered from mental disorders or severe psychological wounds.”

The suffering produced by mental illness is something that Catholics should have a distinctive understanding about, knowing that Catholics are not promised freedom from suffering or affliction and that spiritual practices “will not cure mental disorders or alleviate all emotional suffering,” the bishops said.

What is needed to improve mental health care, the bishops said, is cooperation from church members and leaders, health care professionals and scientific researchers.

In response to those who say psychiatry or clinical psychology are not compatible with Catholic faith, the bishops said discernment is necessary and that “good science that recognises the life and dignity of people and the Catholic faith are never at odds.” They also pointed out that “medical science has discovered many useful treatments to help those with mental illness, and Catholics should welcome and make use of these – including medications, psychotherapy and other medical interventions.”

But at the same time, Catholics struggling with mental illness or helping those with this should not “neglect the role of pastoral care and spiritual direction.” The bishops note that the sacramental life of the church can “provide grace and spiritual strength.”

They also acknowledged the increasing amount of medical research demonstrating health benefits of prayer and meditation, religious worship, active participation in faith-based activities, groups and communities, and cultivating Christian virtues like gratitude and forgiveness.

“These spiritual practices – while they do not entirely prevent or cure mental illness – can reduce the risk of mental health problems and can assist in recovery. Modern medicine is rediscovering that there is a deep connection between the body and the soul: What affects the one has profound effects on the other,” they added.

The bishops’ letter also provides links to resources and programs for those with mental illness.

The bishops said families who have experienced a suicide of a loved one also need help from their Catholic communities. They said the church “teaches that suicide is contrary to the will of God who gave us life,” but that responsibility can be diminished. They also said those who lose a loved one to suicide need particular care and attention, often for considerable periods of time.