Compassion for the mentally ill

May is mental health awareness month

The recent incident of vandalism and arson at St. Matthew Church shifted from a possible case of religious intolerance to a case study on mental health awareness.

When Mackenzie Guillen broke a window and entered the Allouez church early in the morning on May 1 and started a small fire in the gathering space, initial reaction was that the break-in was a hate crime.

Following Guillen’s arrest, members of his family met with Fr. Bob Kabat, pastor, to discuss Guillen’s mental health. His stepsister, Destiny Blanz, told The Compass that Guillen suffers from several mental health disorders and a new medication he was taking compounded his erratic behavior.

“When he visited the last house (Guillen also caused minor damage at two homes near the church) and asked them to call the police, he told (the owner) to ‘please get help, I need help, please call for help,” said Blanz.

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and a good time to consider the need for church outreach to families affected by mental health issues. The compassion and understanding demonstrated by Fr. Kabat after learning of Guillen’s mental health challenge was an example of how the church community can support families dealing with mental health issues.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that 42.5 million American adults (about 18 percent of the population) suffer from some form of mental illness. These can range from mild depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

When left untreated, mental illness can lead to tragic outcomes, including marital and family discord and even suicide. For these reasons, the church needs to offer support and guidance to families who struggle with any of these issues.

St. John Paul II offered strong words on the subject in 1996: “Whoever suffers from mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness in themselves, as does every human being,” he said during a meeting of the International Conference for Health Care Workers. “In addition, they always have the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also to be treated as such.”

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) offers guidance for church outreach to people with mental illness. The NCPD’s Council on Mental Illness gives the following suggestions for parishes and parish leaders to implement:

  • Include in prayers of the faithful during Mass a prayer for people who have a mental illness and their families;
  • Offer homilies about mental illness and recovery that emphasize a spiritual component to recovery;
  • Provide presentations on mental illness and recovery — as well as presentations on justice issues related to mental illness — to church groups;
  • In the gathering space or another public location at church, list mental health services that are available locally as well as website addresses;
  • As part of Respect Life activities, include mental illness issues;
  • Publish parish bulletin articles about mental illness and recovery;
  • Start a support group for people with mental illness.

Those who struggle with mental illness say the simple act of church communities making them feel welcome can make a big difference. While medication usually helps keep mental illness in check, a relationship with God and a supportive faith community can offer them love and hope.