By Larry Urish     10/26/2020

If you fell off a ladder and broke your arm, you’d seek immediate medical assistance. Suppose, however, that your mind was broken. Would you ask for help? Given the social stigma that views mental illness as some sort of personal weakness, you might be reluctant to reach out – even if your life depended on it. 

Sadly, mental illness continues to remain largely hidden from our collective awareness. The result: thousands of people here in Orange County – those struggling with mental disorders and their loved ones – are suffering because of it.  

A 2018 report by the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that one in five U.S. adults suffered from a mental disorder during the previous year, and nearly 10 million struggled with a mental illness severe enough to cause serious functional impairment. The Orange County Health Care Agency indicated that in 2018 the area’s suicide rate, steadily rising since 2000, hit an all-time high for this century. These sobering statistics were cited before a deadly – and highly stressful – pandemic gripped the world. Yet we seemingly ignore the problem. 

“Many still confuse mental illness with a spiritual challenge,” says Linda Ji, director of the Diocese’s Office for Family Life. “If you have a mental illness, it’s not going to be prayed away. Prayer helps, but it’s not the same as getting medical help.” 

The Office for Family Life has been raising awareness in the parish community that mental disorders are medical in nature. “We try to support those with mental illness and their families with prayer and key resources,” Ji says. “And we educate people to be sensitive toward others with mental illness. We need to raise awareness and train clergy to recognize the signs of mental illness and to not only get people the help they need, but to make their parish a welcoming place for those who are suffering.” 

To that end, the Diocese hired Dr. Margery Arnold to serve as the Office for Family Life’s Mental Health Ministry coordinator. Her role: help create ministries that address mental illness in the Diocese’s parishes. 

“People tend to blame mental illness on a moral failure or a lack of effort,” Dr. Arnold says. “This is helping the stigma to persist.” 

Education and awareness are essential tools to fight this stigma, Dr. Arnold says. Ji concurs. “If someone has stage 4 cancer, of course we’ll pray for them, but we’ll also send them to an oncologist. It’s the same with mental illness. We’ll pray for them, but they may need medication and therapy – more than what we do in the faith community.” 

The effectiveness of combining faith and professional medical intervention to help those gripped with mental illness was one of the topics discussed during an interfaith webinar hosted on Oct. 6 by Be Well OC. Along with Bishop Kevin Vann, the webinar included input from local spiritual leaders Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church; Rabbi Richard Steinberg, a family therapist and senior rabbi of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot; and Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, a family therapist and mental health advisor at Access California Services. They discussed the importance of community in battling mental illness, the pandemic’s staggering effect, the essential role of public education and more.  

“People come to us with struggles. They’re isolated, fearful and alone,” Bishop Vann said during the webinar. “A faith community shows us that there’s a reality greater than the current moment.” 

Warren noted that “faith done well” can provide a number of important elements, including “a comfort level that surpasses anything.” This was essential, she added, following the suicide of her son. “That comfort kept me upright.” 

All panelists agreed that prayer and professional medical care must be employed together when dealing with mental disorders; the mentally ill and their families shouldn’t rely on one or the other separately.  

Thus far, notes Dr. Arnold, eight Diocese parishes have mental health ministries in place, and representatives from nine other parishes are involved at the Diocesan level, though they don’t yet have an active mental health ministry. She’s working hard to see that more parishes come on board.  

One parish, St. Irenaeus, has a particularly strong mental health ministry, thanks in large part to the efforts of faith community nurse Jennifer Dagarag and Deacon Jerry Pyne. “Dr. Arnold has really helped the parishes by providing more resources, support and monthly networking meetings to open the mental illness conversation,” Dagarag says. “Oftentimes, families dealing with mental illness don’t ask for help because of shame or guilt, and we really have to support them.” 

Dr. Arnold, Ji and Dagarag all stress that it’s essential to promote and provide access to key resources that address mental illness and provide “mental health first aid.” To access the Office for Family Life’s list of resources for the mentally ill, visit rcbo.org/familylife and click on “Behavioral Health.” In addition, every parish has a list of local mental health professionals, vetted by the Diocese, who incorporate Catholic spirituality into their work.  

“We have to talk to people and give them these resources before they’re in crisis,” Dagarag says. “When they’re already in crisis, they’ll be less apt to reach out.”  

The Be Well OC webinar’s interfaith panel is available on YouTube at bit.ly/bewellocinterfaith2020.