Hope & Healing, a forum on mental illness, drew about 200 participants to Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach on Jan. 28 to acknowledge the Catholic Church’s outreach to the mentally ill and examine the effects such illness has on families and individuals. The forum featured several top Orange County experts on mental health and provided resources from churches, first responders and the medical community.
Speakers at the event noted that while a significant number of people suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, most never say a word because of the stigma associated with mental illness and the fear that acknowledging the illness will mean the loss of their jobs, social status and even their friends and families.
“We stigmatize everyone. In Orange County, we are the worst,” says Jeannine Loucks, the nurse who manages emergency care at St. Joseph Hospital. “It’s a brain disease no different from other diseases, like heart disease or diabetes.” With more than 30 years of experience – including working at the former Metropolitan State Hospital for the mentally ill – Loucks now is building an innovative network of mental health care.
The stigma surrounding mental illness must be tackled so that those who suffer can seek the treatment they need to lead fulfilling lives, speakers said.
“Fifty percent of mentally ill people never seek treatment,” notes Steve Pitman, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and a national board member. Pitman’s brother and granddaughter both suffered with mental disorders, which have been found to have a genetic component. “Only by sharing do we know how to help them. We are on a marathon to overcome the effects of mental illness on our society.”
Pitman’s granddaughter Melissa suffered from bipolar disorder but talked to others about her mental illness, he said, and thus had reason to hope and a connectedness that his brother – who grew up in the 1960s when mental illness meant jail or institutionalization – never had. “She shared her gift with others so they could live happy, healthy, productive lives,” he explains. “Mental illness is isolating. We must stay connected.”
Dr. James Sanders, a therapist who works with Our Lady Queen of Angels’ mental health ministry, agrees. “We need to help each other out to thrive and survive,” Dr. Sanders says. “The Catholic Church wants to be inclusive and not shun them. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and 44 million in our country live with mental illness. The problem is human isolation.”
Bishop Kevin Vann has begun a major mental health initiative and formed a Mental Health Advisory Board, explained Michael Donaldson, director of the Diocese of Orange’s Office of Pastoral Care of the Family in All Stages. Donaldson said that several parishes are doing mental health outreach as well. “Today, the Church is placing an emphasis on family and society. We are perfect instrument to reach out to families. We are going to change the world.”
Dr. Louise Dunn directs the Diocese’s New Hope Crisis Counseling Center and chairs the Mental Health Advisory Board, recalled the mental health conference first held in 2014 at Saddleback Church. The conference draws thousands annually and stemmed from a partnership between Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren and Bishop Vann. “That conference was powerful,” Dr. Dunn said. “It began our dialogue on mental health.” She said the advisory board will help the 62 parishes in the Diocese – which have diverse needs and demographics – with resources and information on mental illness. Individuals and families in search of help can call the New Hope hotline 24/7.