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Deacon Ed Shoener Highlights Importance of Mental Health Ministries in the Church

October 10 is World Mental Health Day, and Deacon Ed Shoener joins the show to help bring awareness and provide support to those in the Church with mental health issues. He is the president of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, and the co-author of two books with Bishop John Dolan of the Diocese of Phoenix, called “When a Loved One Dies by Suicide” and “Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders.”

Regarding mental health, Deacon Ed says, “This is a tsunami that the Church can’t avoid talking about. The rates of anxiety and depression, suicidal ideation, the deaths by suicide in this country — all of this is on the rise. And I’m absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit wants the Church to be in the midst of this.” 

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He compares the stigma around mental health to the Mass readings this past weekend regarding leprosy. Deacon Ed says, “Leprosy was perceived as something that was the fault of the person that had it, or maybe the fault of their parents. It wasn’t understood as an illness. What does that sound like? That sounds like mental illness.” He notes how Jesus saw the person through the disease, and now we are called to do the same and help others.

One of the goals of the association is for mental health ministries to become as common as youth ministries or bereavement ministries in parishes. Deacon Ed says, “A parish community [can] start a spiritual support group for people that live with mental health issues. So often, it’s hard for them to find a place where they can talk about the mental health challenges, their faith, and the intersection of those two things, and to pray together.” He also stresses the importance of providing support for the family members of those suffering as well.

Another example of mental health support in parishes is providing a suicide remembrance and healing Mass, such as the ones held recently in the Dioceses of Phoenix, AZ and Scranton, PA. Deacon Ed describes this type of Mass in his home diocese of Scranton saying, “People long to be able to publicly mourn in a liturgical celebration in the church…it was just so moving. You’d see entire families coming up in memory of a loved one.”

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Father Dave notes the importance of distinguishing spiritual issues from mental health issues, and pointing people in the right direction for care. He makes a comparison to physical health saying, “If somebody walked into my confessional with a broken leg and said, ‘Can we just pray about this?’ That’s not a purely spiritual thing. We pray, certainly. But we also seek to get it healed.”

Deacon Ed also notes how these ministries support, but do not replace, medical care like therapy or psychiatry. Rather, those in the Church are charged to familiarize themselves with the appropriate resources in a given community, because “the mental health care system can be very confusing.”

He continues, “You’re not a bad Catholic if you see a therapist, you’re not a bad Catholic if you take antidepressants or anxiety meds. It’s not like you have a lack of faith in God because you’re doing these things. If anything, you can recognize that a lot of these things are in fact gifts from God to you to help you heal.”

If you or a loved one is ever experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 988. And consult Suicide Prevention Hotline if you are concerned for yourself or another.