Vatican holds first-of-its-kind mental health conference

Catholic mental health ministers from all over the world gathered in the Dicastery for Communication for the first-ever Vatican workshop dedicated to mental health and pastoral care.

By Joseph Tulloch

In 2016, at the age of 29, Deacon Ed Shoener’s daughter Katie committed suicide. She had wrestled with bipolar disorder for over a decade.

Katie’s death prompted Deacon Shoener to begin advocating for mental health awareness within the Church. He soon founded the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, a non-profit that supports parishes and dioceses in establishing mental health ministries.

Deacon Shoener shared this story at a first-of-its kind conference in the Vatican on Monday, which brought together individuals active in Catholic mental health ministry across the globe.

Participants included Vatican officials, representatives from the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, and individuals working on the frontline in Moldova, India, South Africa and elsewhere.

The view from the Vatican

Monsignor Anthony Ekpo, Undersecretary at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, was the first to speak.

He said that mental health has become a priority for his Dicastery following its conversations with local churches around the world, which often voice major concerns about the issue. 

Particularly worrying, Msgr. Ekpo said, are the human rights abuses sometimes committed against those with mental health challenges.

He also noted the connection between mental health and climate change, a key cause area for his Dicastery: anxieties and concrete difficulties related to the climate emergency, he said, can greatly aggravate mental health problems.

As a counter-measure, Msgr. Ekpo suggested what Pope Francis calls the “ecology of daily life”. This idea, he explained, is taken from the Pope’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, and involves paying attention to the environments we live in, and the way they “influence the way we think, feel and act.”

In a brief interview with Vatican News, Msgr. Ekpo's colleague Fr Shawn Conoboy expressed his gratefulness for the conference, and the work of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers. 

Fr Shawn Conoboy, Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

Accompaniment, not treatment

There is a real shortage of mental health professionals across the globe, noted Bishop John Dolan from the US Diocese of Phoenix. For this reason, he said, it is very important that the Church attempt to step into the gap and provide assistance to individuals who would otherwise receive none.

The Church’s role in these cases, however, he stressed, cannot be to diagnose, prescribe or treat, work which must be left to professionals. Instead, he said, the Church must accompany – accompany those with mental health problems, and accompany their family members.

In his own Diocese, Bishop Dolan said, he runs a number of projects with this aim. One of them is a mission to educate priests to make them more aware of mental health issues, so they can connect those suffering from them with professionals. Too often, he said, priests misdiagnose those with mental health issues as suffering from spiritual problems – a failure to pray sufficiently, for example, or even demonic possession.

Bishop Dolan also helps counsellors and other mental health professionals in his Diocese – whose jobs do not generally pay well – to find affordable housing, to allow them to carry out their vital work.

Pope Francis’ prayers

Fr Frédéric Fornos, meanwhile, spoke of the partnership between the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, which he directs, and the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers.

In 2021, he said, the Pope had asked for prayers for those with burnout and depression. This led to a collaboration with Deacon Shoener’s organisation, which provides now it with prayers for mental health related to the Pope’s prayer intention every month.

Fr Fornos suggested that prayer can be a useful resource for those suffering from mental health issues, quoting Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)

Mental health, abortion, and euthanasia

Another perspective was offered by Dr. Nunziata Comoretto of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Participants, she said, might be asking themselves why someone from her organisation – which is primarily concerned with the issues of abortion and euthanasia – was taking part in a conference on mental health.

In response, Dr Comoretto stressed the key significance of caring for those who are depressed, burnt-out, or otherwise struggling with mental health challenges, so that they never feel that euthanasia is the best option left to them.

She also noted the substantial impact that abortion can have on women’s mental health.

The conference in the Vatican
The conference in the Vatican

Aid for Ukrainian refugees

The conference then heard from a number of individuals on the frontlines in various countries, helping to coordinate the work of the Association of Mental Health Ministers there.

One of these statements was Anastasia Miranova, who works at Caritas Moldova. She noted that her country has recently received very large numbers of refugees from Ukraine, many of whom, given the traumatic events in their country,  are suffering from mental health problems.

Her work, Ms Miranova said, has involved translating booklets and prayer cards with information about mental health into Romanian and Russian, languages widely spoken in the country.

A growing ministry

In India, meanwhile, Catholic mental health ministry is just beginning to take off.

The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers only began operations in the country a few months ago, said Edwin Walker. He said that he had been “thrilled” by the response so far, with priests and laity from all across the country reaching out to him to voice their support.

In South Africa, too, events are in motion. Dr Melese Shula, Catholic Mental Health Ministry’s representative in the country, had just met with 29 South African bishops, almost all of whom, he said, had expressed enthusiasm for bringing mental health ministry to their dioceses.

The aim, said Dr Shula, is for the Church to be able to provide “confidential and non-judgmental” support for those struggling with their mental health, "like the Good Samaritan."

The Sisters Hospitallers

Sr Isabel Cantón of the Sisters Hospitallers, a religious order founded in 1881 specifically to care for those suffering from mental illnesses, also shared her experience from the field.

Her congregation, she said, is inspired by the prophet Isaiah’s call to “bind up the brokenhearted.” In the UK, where Sr Cantón has been living for five decades, the order runs three care homes, caring for the physical, mental and spiritual needs of residents.

The nun stressed the difficulties that her congregation faces today: fewer priests and sisters, the need to adapt the spiritual care they offer to a context where not all residents are Catholic, and the lack of trained pastoral workers. She noted that some centres run by her congregation are now entirely staffed by laypeople, and have no sisters or chaplains.

Sr Cantón called for the Church to welcome and listen to those with mental illnesses, welcoming them as “fellow pilgrims.”

Sr Isabel Cantón, Sisters Hospitallers

Turning churches into mental health sanctuaries

Also present at the meeting was Bryana Russell of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, an organisation that provides resources on faith and mental health. 

In an interview with Vatican News, Ms Russell discussed the organisation's Sanctuary Course, a study guide designed to raise awareness and start conversations about mental health in local churches.

She said she had recently met a woman who, during her stay in a psychiatric ward, had received two visitors a day from her local parish, members of which had recently completed the Sanctuary Course.

As a result, Ms Russell said, "she was able to feel God's presence, even in that moment of suffering and pain."

Mental health and poverty

Two other speakers, Federico di Leo and Miriam Amerio, underlined the close connection between economic and health poverty.

Ms Amerio – who works for Caritas Italy,  the charitable arm of the Italian Catholic Bishops’ conference – presented a number of statistics on the subject, noting that, among those suffering from mental illnesses, those with the fewest economic resources are most affected.

Mr di Leo, meanwhile, offered a personal perspective. He is active in the Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic lay group which works with the poor and homeless in Italy, many of whom, he said, struggle with mental health issues.  

Di Leo stressed the importance of continuously accompanying those with mental health problems. Sant’Egidio has realised in the course of its ministry, he said, that it is not sufficient to help individuals for a short while; rather, any help given must be consistent and sustained.

“We never abandon anyone”, Mr di Leo stressed.

St John of God

The conference came to an end with a prayer invoking St John of God, a 16th century saint who lived in Spain, and suffered an acute mental health breakdown in mid-life.

“St John of God, you understand and witnessed the difficulties of living with a mental illness. You lived in the darkness but found hope. You wrote: ‘When you feel depressed, have recourse to the Passion of Jesus Christ our Lord, and his precious wounds, and you will feel great consolation.’”

“Lord our God, grant courage to those for whom we pray and fill them with hope. Help them to remember You love them; they are never alone.”

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30 January 2024, 14:39