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Catholic leaders take up mental health mantle

Catholic leaders take up mental health mantle
The California Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter calling for Catholics to help addicts and the mentally ill. Bishop Kevin Vann, left, led the issue with a joint mental health conference with Pastor Rick Warren in 2014, after the death of Warren’s son. (Courtesy of Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange)

A grassroots effort that began in Orange County following the 2013 suicide of Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren's son has yielded a spirited call to action for Roman Catholics throughout California to help addicts and the mentally ill.

In a nearly 6,000-word pastoral letter made public Wednesday, the California Catholic Bishops, an advocacy group that serves as the official voice of the state's estimated 10 million Catholics — including some 1.2 million in Orange County — urged the faithful to move beyond stigmatization of the mentally ill toward ministry and care.

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"I hope that (this letter) can go beyond the borders of Orange County and show that collaboration is possible among people of faith to really walk with their brothers and sisters who have these struggles so they're not alone," said Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange.

The document, "Hope and Healing," is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States issued by a statewide Catholic leadership organization that addresses a topic traditionally not addressed by clergy and laity.

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The pastoral letter, timed to Mental Health Awareness Month in May, references the national opioid crisis — such pain killers were involved in 42,249 deaths in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the skyrocketing suicide rates among teenagers.

Addiction issues often go hand in hand with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

"We Christians have to get to know people, to befriend them, to listen generously to them, to walk with them," the bishops said in the pastoral letter. "This is not because we have all the answers to their problems or can cure all of their afflictions, but simply because these encounters — these small acts of love and compassion, understanding, and friendship — are precisely what people need most."

After Warren's son, Matthew, fatally shot himself after a lifelong struggle with addiction in April 2013, Vann, Warren and Warren's wife, Kay, had several discussions that led to a joint mental health conference in 2014.

A joint mental health conference in 2014 grew out of conversations between Bishop Kevin Vann and Pastor Rick Warren, Saddleback Church’s founder, after the suicide of Warren’s 27-year-old son.
A joint mental health conference in 2014 grew out of conversations between Bishop Kevin Vann and Pastor Rick Warren, Saddleback Church’s founder, after the suicide of Warren’s 27-year-old son. (Courtesy of Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange)

Then, in 2015, Vann established a Mental Health Taskforce of parish, community and medical mental health leaders that has resulted in the formation of mental health ministries at several Orange County parishes. These ministries host speakers and educational forums and provide links to medical services.

"In the beginning … different things were going on throughout the diocese, but nothing was centralized," said Louise Dunn, director of New Hope Crisis Center, a counseling hotline run by Catholic Charities of Orange County.

Now, more than 30 parishioners at several Orange County Catholic churches have been trained by Orange County Behavioral Health Services professionals to minister to churchgoers struggling with mental health issues and addiction, said Dunn, who also is chairwoman of the Diocese of Orange Mental Health Advisory Board.

Among the Orange County parishes leading the effort to reach out to the mentally ill are St. John Neumann in Irvine, Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach, Santiago de Compostela in Lake Forest, Christ our Savior in Santa Ana, and Sts. Simon and Jude in Huntington Beach.

These and other Catholic parishes host educational forums that include members from law enforcement and the medical community including Mission Hospital, St. Joseph Hospital of Orange, Hoag Hospital and CHOC Children's, which now has a unit dedicated to treating minors with mental health issues.

"There's been an understanding that we don't need to reinvent things, but instead work in collaboration so our (goals) can be accomplished," Dunn said.

The letter urges collaboration between science and religion, health care and pastoral care.

"Clergy and health care professionals, families and mental health advocates should work together to encourage a 'both-and' rather than 'either-or' approach to psychological and spiritual healing," the bishops wrote. "We welcome and encourage advances in science and medicine."

Vann said he hopes the letter serves as a springboard to get all Catholic churches — in Orange County, the state and, eventually, the nation — to develop ministries dedicated to serving the mentally ill and those struggling with addictions.

"I hope that (the letter) … finds its way into peoples' hands so they can find some hope or healing for themselves, or learn how to help other people," said Vann, noting that the first homily he gave as a 29-year-old priest in Springfield, Ill., was at a funeral for a man who committed suicide.

"There are human faces behind these struggles and these labels," Vann said.

The complete document, "Hope and Healing: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of California on Caring for those who Suffer from Mental Illness Addressed to All Catholics and People of Goodwill, is available at cacatholic.org/resources/mental-health

Greg Hardesty is a contributor to Times Community News.

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