Convocation speakers discuss parish outreach to families struggling with mental illness

GREEN BAY — One of the 14 breakout sessions offered at this year’s Leadership Convocation took on a topic that families keep hidden: mental illness. Doug Bisbee and Ann Jadin, counselors who work in the mental health field, cited eye-opening statistics showing the prevalence of mental illness. They encouraged parish leaders to work with other community agencies to address mental health issues.

Ann Jadin, director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Fox Valley, speaks at the Leadership Convocation Oct. 29. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

According to Bisbee, 20 percent of parishioners have some type of mental illness and 50 percent know someone who struggles with it. “There’s such stigma attached to mental health that we don’t want to talk about it,” said Bisbee, a clergy and congregation care consultant at Samaritan Counseling Center of the Fox Valley, Inc.

In addition, there is a shortage of mental health professionals. He said three-fourths of the counties in the U.S. have a mental health provider shortage. Treatment of mental illness is often a combination of therapy and medication, he said.

Churches can have a major impact in helping individuals with mental illness and their families, Bisbee explained.

“Twenty-five percent of people with mental illness turn to their clergy person first, so there’s a trusting relationship,” he said, adding that clergy outnumber psychiatrists 10 to 1.

Because 80 percent of the chronically mental ill depend on care from their families, it has a direct effect on families and marriages, Bisbee said. It’s not only priests who are called to ministry and awareness of mental health, but youth ministers, parish nurses, catechists and others “on the front lines.”

Churches can provide comfort and support to people battling mental illness, said Bisbee. “Many of your young people don’t know what to do with struggles, suffering and challenges,” he said. “Yet we in the faith community have the stories of our faith. We have the experiences that we can share.”

The sacraments, prayer and religious values all help to support people with mental illness, but more can be accomplished to actively assist them, said Bisbee. He suggested building partnerships with mental health providers, learning more about mental health and mental illness, addressing stereotypes and stigmas from the pulpit, and offering prayer intentions for those struggling with it.

Jadin, who is director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Fox Valley, told the approximately 35 people (including seven priests) attending the session that mental illness became more than a professional issue when her husband began suffering from depression.

She said anyone can struggle with mental health issues, but mental illness “is a brain disorder, just like a heart attack is to the heart.”

Jadin said mental illness falls into four categories: anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorders and thought disorders such as schizophrenia. She gave examples of famous people suffering from each of the mental disorders.

Mental illness is treatable through therapy and medication, but it can also kill if not treated, she said.

“There are lots of factors that impact recovery and the faith community is a big part of that,” Jadin said.

Parishes interested in learning ways to support families who may be dealing with mental health issues can contact Bigbee, [email protected]; (920) 886-9319 or Jadin, [email protected]; (920) 954-1550.