NEW YORK — In a groundbreaking new pastoral letter, California’s Catholic bishops are calling for a new compact among the Church, healthcare officials, and scientific researchers to improve care for the nearly 44 million American adults who struggle with mental health issues and to end the social stigma around mental illness.
The letter, “Hope and Healing,” was released on Wednesday by the California Catholic Conference and issues a plea for Catholics and all people of goodwill “to overcome an attitude of ‘us’ and ‘them’” when it comes to encountering those who struggle with mental health.
The document details a range of recent scientific and medical studies in an effort to “build bridges between science and religion, health care and pastoral care.” The letter notes that one in five adults in the U.S. suffers from a mental disorder, and that 20 percent of adolescents are currently or have previously suffered from a “seriously debilitating mental disorder.”
“Anyone may struggle with mental health problems,” the bishops write.
The bishops unequivocally condemn the “unjust social stigma of mental illness,” and identify a double standard between the normalization and acceptance of care for physical illness and the silence and shame that often surrounds mental illness.
“This should not be so in our civic communities, and cannot be so in our Catholic communities,” they write.
“There is no shame in receiving a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder… mental illness is neither a moral failure nor a character defect,” they continue.
The letter goes on to specifically identify the rise in suicide rates in the United States, particularly among the young, the opioid epidemic, where drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, and an “epidemic of profound loneliness,” witnessed throughout the nation.
The bishops call for a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” response that recognizes the validity of both psychological and spiritual healing, and they reject a suspicion some Christians have harbored when it comes to matters of clinical psychology and psychiatry.
While noting that wisdom and discernment should be used to ensure that various approaches conform to best medical practices, the letter maintains that “good science recognizing the life and dignity of people and the Catholic faith are never at odds.”
In issuing a plea to pastors and lay Catholics alike, the bishops call for shared responsibility by the Christian community and beyond. The letter specifically recalls Pope Francis’s challenge for priests to have the smell of their sheep, hence its plea for mental health ministries that are “proactive rather than reactive.”
Drawing on Francis’s theme of building a “culture of encounter,” the bishops express the need for direct engagement and friendship for those suffering from mental illness.
“It can make a great difference when we move from praying for people to praying with them,” they write.
The letter is largely the initiative of Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, California, who has been deeply engaged on matters of mental health at the inspiration of his close friend and frequent collaborator Pastor Rick Warren, one of the most well-known evangelical pastors in the United States.
Following the death of Warren’s son to suicide in 2013, Vann and Warren have organized two major mental health forums to bring together Catholics and evangelicals to unite on this issue. As other dioceses caught wind of the initiative, other bishops felt the need for a statewide response.
In an interview with Crux, Vann said the letter is “the product of a grassroots experience that took hold and then we began to see the fruit of it.”
“I would hope that we lead here by an example that shows what’s possible of people of faith to walk with their brothers and sisters that have these struggles,” he continued.
Vann said that most pastors and parish priests have confronted mental health issues directly, recalling that one of the very first homilies he ever preached was in response to a suicide.
He went on to note that many priests, having gone through the process of formation for the priesthood, have availed themselves of counseling and therapy, and know firsthand the value of mental healthcare.
Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, an associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Medical Ethics Program at University of California-Irvine School of Medicine, told Crux he’s witnessed an uptick in recent years in the number of Catholics who are willing to talk about mental health.
“In the past few years we have seen initiatives in various parishes springing up to help support those who struggle with mental illness and their families and loved ones,” said Kheriaty. “These are positive developments, and this document from the California bishops will help to support these initiatives and encourage more like them.”
He went on to add that he believes the letter will be a source of encouragement to both Catholics with mental health issues, as well as their loved ones.
“It is important that these members of the Church feel that their experiences are understood by our pastors, that their unique forms of suffering matter, and that Catholics are committed to walking in solidarity with them,” said Kheriaty.
Dr. Louise Dunn, director of the New Hope Crisis Center, an ecumenical counseling program of Catholic Charities of Orange County, echoed those sentiments, saying that the bishops’ letter will have wide reverberations.
“When you have the support of the bishops at the top, it sends the message that this state is very serious about helping people with mental health issues,” she told Crux.
For Dunn, the resources and energy resulting from the letter won’t be limited to the state’s eleven million Catholics, but they will extend to residents throughout the country’s most populous state and beyond.
“As Pope Francis would say, we’re accompanying people,” said Vann. “We just want them to know they’re not alone.”