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Diocese of Phoenix Creates Office of the Ministry of Mental Health

Bishop John P. Dolan of Phoenix announces the establishment of an office of mental health ministry Sept. 4, 2022, during the first mass of remembrance for suicide victims in the Diocese of Phoenix at Ss. Simon & Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (CNS Photo/Brett Meister/The Catholic Sun)

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PHOENIX (CNS) – According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than twice as many people died in 2020 by their own hands than by someone else, and while the annual suicide rate actually dropped in 2019 and 2020 – the last year figures are available – the rate has risen sharply since 2000.

Once considered a mortal sin that could cost someone salvation, suicide is now viewed by the Church in a much more moderate way.

And alongside this development, clergy, clinicians and advocates are calling for suicide to be brought to light in hopes of reducing it and doing more to help those left behind.

On Sunday, September 4, the Diocese of Phoenix took an important step toward both milestones, becoming the latest of a growing number of dioceses across the United States to create a dedicated office for the Ministry of Mental Health.

The announcement – during the first Mass in remembrance of suicide victims in the diocese – came from someone familiar with the matter.

Bishop of Phoenix John P. Dolan, who lost a brother and sister to suicide in separate incidents more than a decade ago, unveiled plans for the new office of the Catholic Ministry of Mental Health near the end of his homily before a standing congregation. at Ss. Simon & Jude Cathedral in Phoenix.

In an interview after Mass, Bishop Dolan said a dedicated diocesan office for mental health has been one of his goals since his Aug. 2 installment, but its implementation was accelerated by a donation of one local foundation, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. , which supports local religious and secular projects.

Immediately after the Bishop’s remarks, members of the congregation who had lost someone to suicide were called to place a single carnation for each deceased person in a basket in front of the Cathedral Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe – the patroness of the diocese.

“Ask Our Lady to accompany you with her prayers and to accompany our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, asking the Lord to hold our brothers and sisters in the palm of her hand,” he said.

Bishop Dolan said he and other diocesan leaders expected online and in-person requests to place flowers from around 100 to 120 people. The final number was around 1,200.

“There are a lot of people who are suffering,” he said.

The Bishop said the new office will serve three purposes: education, accompaniment to those who are suffering, and advocacy for better policy and funding from government and other sources.

“Educate our Catholic brothers and sisters who may not fully understand the depth of mental health; we accompany those who struggle… in our parishes so that they are not lost but know that they have a place at the table. And we accompany those who struggle with loss through suicide. Those of you who have survived a loss; I hope you know the church is there, reaching out to you, letting you know that you are loved and your loved ones are not forgotten.

Each of the 15 deaneries of the diocese will hold regular gatherings where people can share their stories and help each other.

“Finally, the office will promote a spirit of advocacy, provide a voice for those struggling with mental health, and call on leaders, our government in particular, to ensure that mental health is always at the forefront of all our discussions.” , Bishop Dolan said.

The diocese will provide priests and deacons with a mental health “first aid kit” to guide them in responding to requests for help from the public.

“Often our priests don’t have (answers). They don’t have the resources they need at hand,” he explained.

Another key element will be to inform the laity of the evolution of the Church’s positions on suicide and mental health over the years.

“It’s not a lack of willpower. It’s a mental disorder. This is something we must consider as we look to the future and pursue Catholic mental health ministry,” he said.

For decades, the church’s practice was not to celebrate a funeral mass for someone who had committed suicide, due to the belief that killing was a sin. This is no longer true.

“The church has become wiser…and now understands that severe psychological anxiety can sometimes lessen – even suppress – a person’s ability to make decisions and their moral responsibility for those choices,” the father wrote. Kenneth Doyle, retired columnist for Catholic News. Service, in a 2021 article.

The response outside the church has also changed.

For example, while mental health professionals may be considered the first line of symptom recognition, more recent studies show that signs can be identified by a family doctor or primary care physician.

A clinical manager with Catholic Charities in Arizona said the agency has seen requests for help increase in recent years.

“With the onset of COVID, the need and recognition for mental health services has increased, particularly in the areas of grief, anxiety and depression, which has impacted counseling agencies . Trends (include) counselors with increased workloads and people struggling to find services,” Anna Smith, senior program manager for Catholic Charities, wrote in an email.

The Diocese of Phoenix is ​​not alone in innovating in mental health.

“There are about 190 dioceses in this country. Some have totally embraced it. I would say 35 to 40 have some level of ministry,” said Ed Shoener, deacon of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and president of the Association of Catholic Ministers of Mental Health, a national lay organization that supports parishes. and Catholic dioceses creating ministries.

Shoener’s own daughter committed suicide at age 29.

Many members of the congregation at the Remembrance Mass were excited about the plan to open a Ministry of Mental Health office.

“I’m so excited,” said Laura Redlinger, 30, who moved to Phoenix a few months ago from San Diego, where she attended masses for suicide victims that Bishop Dolan celebrated regularly as a Auxiliary Bishop in the Diocese of San Diego.

Redlinger lost his brother to suicide ten years ago when he was 20.

“I need a support group. There is not much in the Catholic Church. You can go to a bereavement support group, but not specifically for someone who has lost someone to suicide,” she explained.

“I feel like there is almost a stigma within the Catholic Church. We need to realize the importance of mental health and our emotional well-being in light of the Gospel, that we can apply to our personal problems,” she added.

Nancy Hannah, 81, who attends St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Sun City, lost her husband, Gerald, 80, to suicide after years of lung cancer. She had been his carer and is still looking for someone to talk to “openly” about it.

“That’s what I need; a little healing. I need a little closure and I can’t seem to find it,” she said.

“There are a lot of people who are suffering,” said Anne Vargas-Leveriza, who is helping to set up the new office, which will be operational on January 1.

“It’s time we put this front and center,” she said. “We have to recognize it and talk about it.”

Grant writes for The Catholic Sun, media outlet for the Diocese of Phoenix.