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NEW YORK – Jeri McNulty remembers early on in the COVID-19 pandemic the anxiety attacks and stress that came with shifting her reading classes for young students online, and the general isolation she experienced in her personal life in a remote world.
McNulty, who suffers from bipolar disorder and anxiety, also remembers the importance of her Catholic faith during that time. She said just being present in the church, sitting in a pew and taking in the moment, was key to getting her through that period.
“[Mental health and faith] go hand in hand,” McNulty told Crux. “When I’m well I’m extremely grateful and my faith plays a big part in that and when I’m low I have my faith to help me get through the dark times.”
McNulty’s career has somewhat shifted almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s still in education. However, instead of working with kindergarten-fourth graders on reading, she’s working in a teacher development role. And in that role, even though the country is a far cry from the lockdowns of 2020, she witnesses the way teachers are overwhelmed and stressed bringing students back up to speed.
It’s clear, she said, the exacerbation of mental health challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic are still a reality for many people. It’s something Pope Francis recognizes, too. His November 2021 prayer intention is for “people who suffer from depression.”
“We pray that people who suffer from depression or burn-out find support and a light that opens them up to life,” the prayer intention reads.
A video accompanies the prayer intention where Pope Francis goes more in-depth about the challenges people face worldwide including overwork and work-related stress “that cause many people to experience extreme mental, emotional, affective and physical exhaustion.”
“Sadness, apathy, and spiritual tiredness end up dominating people’s lives, who are overloaded due to the rhythm of life today,” the pope continued, adding a reminder that Jesus’ words are an effective tool to help with mental illness.
According to a press release accompanying the video, about 1 in 10 people worldwide live with a mental health disorder, which is about 792 million people. About 700,000 people commit suicide each year, it added, making it the fourth leading cause of death for people ages 15-29.
The video was made in consultation with the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers – which has worked since 2019 to add mental health ministry to parishes and dioceses in the United States, and break the stigma surrounding mental illness.
McNulty participates in mental health ministry to help with her mental health. She lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as does one of the association’s founders, Deacon Ed Shoener.
Shoener, as someone that suffers from mild depression himself, also recognizes the challenge the isolation of the pandemic has created.
“Depression and anxiety can be isolating to begin with, and when the isolation is required for public health reasons that can be particularly difficult,” Shoener told Crux.
Shoener founded the association in 2019. At that time, he said, the Diocese of San Diego was the lone diocese with mental health ministry. In the three years since – mostly through the COVID-19 pandemic – mental health ministry has been added to over 30 dioceses nationwide at the parish or diocesan level. He describes the association as a network for mental health ministry; to equip and inspire people to make it available all over.
“Our focus [as mental health ministers] is to accompany people, like Pope Francis talks about, that live with these illnesses and mental health challenges and their families and to just let them know that they’re not forgotten by the church, that there’s a community that supports them, because all too often people with mental illness are isolated,” Shoener said.
To encourage the ministry the association has made resources available on its website, created training programs and offered grants to mental health ministries nationwide, hosted conferences, and founded the University of San Diego Catholic Institute for Mental Health.
For Shoener and other leaders of the space, the passion for the ministry is rooted in their personal experiences living the impact mental illness can have.
Shoener’s inspiration to create the association came after his daughter, Katie, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide in 2016. A short obituary he wrote about his daughter subsequently went viral, making him recognize the need for mental health ministry.
He got the association off the ground with Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan of San Diego, whose family also suffered mental health tragedies. When he was young his brother, Tom, committed suicide. Then when he was in college, his sister and her husband committed suicide too.
That personal experience and a desire to help those that suffered from mental illness were at the heart of why he wanted to be involved with the ministry. He serves as the association’s chaplain.
“The whole point was to make sure that people who had mental health related difficulties were a part of the fabric of the church,” Dolan told Crux. “I think what excited me about Catholic mental health ministry was that even as an adult, as a priest, I realized how I shut a lot of that out because you just don’t talk about mental health related issues because of shame. So, by talking about and sharing with others you realize you’re not alone.”
Margery Arnold, a licensed psychologist in California, became a mental health ministry coordinator for the Diocese of Orange after experiencing burnout in her previous job as a pediatric psychologist. She, too, suffers from bouts of depression.
Throughout the pandemic Arnold conducted mental health ministry with people via Zoom, and recently began in-person sessions in groups of 8-14 people at her parish. She said among what people have expressed is that because of the pandemic they’re tired, lonely and separated.
Although Arnold said she’s encouraged by what seems like more people talking about mental health and reaching out for help. She hopes Pope Francis’s words will encourage more people to bring mental health and mental health ministry to the forefront.”
“[Mental health ministry] is bringing God’s love to people who need it, or who are hurting or who are left out and so, to hear the pope say it, mental health ministry is the gospel so we can no longer look at it as just a side issue. It’s really central to our faith,” Arnold said.
McNulty said the church addressing mental health makes her feel like she’s not alone.
“When I went to ministry the profound thing is that I’m not alone,” McNulty said. “These people understand, and going back to the pope – he understands and that’s really important.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg