Catholic communities across Australia are being urged to help shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness by supporting and welcoming those who suffer and their families.
With one in five Australians experiencing a mental health illness each year and mental illness being the third-leading cause of disability, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference on Friday released new mental illness and outreach guidelines for parishes.
The extent of mental illness in Australia is reflected in annual suicide rates, which show that 3,128 people died from intentional self-harm in 2017 – an increase of 9.1 percent from the previous year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In a letter to parishes throughout Australia in preparation for World Mental Health Day on October 10, Bishop Don Sproxton said the motivation to create the new resources was captured in the powerful opening words of the document’s title – “Do Not Be Afraid” – from Matthew’s Gospel.
“These powerful words challenge us all to be authentic. The Christian community is mandated to include every member by acknowledging their baptismal call, and their gifts and presence,” he said.
“The guidelines provide parishes with very useful information about mental illness in its various forms and the issue of suicide in Australia receives special attention.
“When your parish or Church community gathers, nearly everyone there will know someone who has a mental illness; few will come forward, but it is there.”
Bishop Sproxton, the Bishop Delegate for the Australian Catholic Disability Council, said the stigma of mental illness can be just as damaging to families and carers as the illness itself.
“In fact, misconceptions about mental illness often exacerbate the condition,” he said. “Pope Francis reassures us that: ‘A God who can enter into the depths of our suffering is not repulsed by our woundedness or disfigurements, but who meets us whenever and whoever we are, heals us by bringing us ever closer to himself’.
“So, if God can meet us whoever we are, surely we are called to meet our brothers and sisters suffering with the isolation and loneliness that mental illness can sometimes bring.”
Sr Myree Harris RSJ, acting chair of the Australian Catholic Disability Council, said the guidelines were designed to provide information about mental illness, in order to promote understanding and lessen stigma.
“Parishes across Australia want to show people with mental illness that they are welcomed and valued as members of the parish community. However, they are often unsure how to do this,” she said.
“There is material that may assist people with mental illness to realise God’s special love for them. There are suggested prayers and points for homilies that may assist liturgical celebrants.
“Having lived with people with mental illness at Gethsemane Community (Petersham, New South Wales) for the past 30 years, I believe that this is a valuable resource for many sections of the Church community.
“It may inspire people to advocate for better funding for mental health services and for more social and affordable housing.”
Dr Paul Fanning, a former New South Wales area director of mental health services, said recent research showed that mental health is now the most frequently consulted upon health issue by general practitioners in Australia.
“Epidemiologically, I think we are still only seeing the tip of the iceberg and I have serious concerns for the welfare of people with serious and complex mental illness, such as schizophrenia, who also suffer much lower life expectancies due to coexisting physical illnesses and high rates of suicide. The systems are simply not there to care for them adequately,” he said.
“Their carers also suffer greatly on a lifelong basis as a consequence.”
To access the guidelines and associated resource materials, including a prayer card and poster, go to: https://www.catholic.org.au/donotbeafraid.
If you or someone you know is in immediate need, call the following (24/7) crisis support numbers:
Lifeline: 131 114
Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800
Menslink Australia 1300 789 978
Family Drug Support 1300 368 186