Support families coping with mental illness

By Mary Ann Otto | Special to The Compass | April 20, 2016

Have you ever been at Mass and looked around pondering what is going on in the lives of the people you worship with each weekend? Might you stroll (or rush) through your neighborhood grocery or hardware store aware of the people around you and wonder what their greatest joys and most difficult struggles might be?

Jesus was the master at this. He never was so self-involved that he was not aware of or could not extend mercy and love to those who he encountered. He was especially loving to those who were stigmatized by the culture of the day. Jesus was the ultimate steward of compassion and he taught his disciples to do the same.

Early this year, my husband and I had the privilege of spending a significant amount of time with families who have loved ones suffering with brain disorders, also known as mental illness. My eyes were opened in a way I could never have imagined. The sessions were spent not only gaining important medical information, but also sharing the daily stresses of having a child, a sibling, etc., whose quality of life is hindered by a diagnosis of psychosis, schizophrenia or bipolar disease and the chemical addictions that often accompany it. These gatherings also offered hope for families that new medications and therapies were being developed.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was that every time we went to a session, we were entering “holy ground.” The families were bringing their stories to the table for support and to help others. Sharing the ongoing daily events in the life of a teen, an adult child or sibling with a brain disorder is a tearful experience to say the least. Breaking through the shame brought on by mental health disorders, they discussed times when their loved ones where arrested or incarcerated.

They shared their ongoing struggle to find medications and health services that would stabilize the disorder and the moments when their loved ones were themselves.

The second thing that impacted me greatly was the unconditional love and dedication of family members in the midst of a chaotic life. While many families have “launched” their adult children and are enjoying their retirement, some will spend their time and finances walking daily with their loved one. Their days are spent aggressively pursuing treatments and services as advocates in a country where the insurance industry has not yet acknowledged mental illness as the medical condition it truly is.

If I had to define “hero or heroine” today, it would be the family members who walk this journey. In the midst of chronic grief and exhaustion, they are the ones who have brought the issue to the forefront through advocacy and have helped to make changes on the local and state level.

Recently, the Appleton Post Crescent had a series of articles discussing many aspects of mental illness which I’m sure were the result of ongoing advocacy in our area and the nation as well. I hope many of you have read them.

So what does this mean for our parishes who are meant to be the beacon of hope and the stewards of Jesus’ love in our neighborhoods? The question was answered for me when a beautiful mom of a teen said: “When a family member suffers from cancer or other diseases, people send cards, visit and bring a casserole. If your family member suffers from a brain disorder, there is no contact or support.” There is no doubt when we evaluate the scope of pastoral care in our parishes, we might need to consider how we support these beautiful families God has placed in our neighborhoods, in our care.

I believe when we see through the lens of Christ, the depth of our love increases exponentially and the Spirit brings forth everything we might need to be Jesus to others. My human vision tends to limit my love and my passion, but with Christ, I believe all things are possible. I propose that as followers of Jesus, we look at the mental health issue with justice and compassion, offer support and be a faithful citizen advocate.

In a time when our parishes are called to be disciples of Jesus in word and witness, it is crucial that we are aware who is not only sitting next to us at Mass, but also who we encounter in our neighborhoods. What a mission we’ve inherited!

For information call NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) Fox Valley (920) 954-1550.

Otto is Stewardship and Special Projects director for the diocesan Stewardship and Pastoral Services Department.

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