By Deacon Tom Lambert
Archdiocese of Chicago, Commission on Mental Illness
Mental illnesses can be isolating for people and their families. Sadly, the misperceptions about serious mental illness often keep them from participating in their faith communities. They may encounter stigma and societal misperceptions. Feeling unwelcome, they also may feel rejected by God. Rather than mirroring the prejudices of society, congregations can challenge those assumptions by accepting and reaching out to all people—to open doors and minds to the gifts of all God’s people.
An essential part of recovery is spiritual healing. Author Estelle Frankel says, “Spiritual healing is essentially about breaking out of the narrow prison of our own personal heartbreak to enter the heavenly palace of compassion and connection. It is about how the human heart can be broken open, so that the veils that keep us separate from one another and … the divine can be removed.” When faith communities welcome and embrace all God’s people, they too are healed and enriched.
In the Archdiocese of Chicago, a few of us started the Commission on Mental Illness as volunteers. The need is so great. Over the past 20 plus years, we have tried, in different ways, to increase awareness of the needs of people with mental illness and their families and break through barriers of misunderstanding. Our annual Mass for people with mental illness celebrates their lives and that of their families, friends, and professionals who are part of the healing process. We gather for worship and fellowship—no speeches or programs—only opportunity for getting to know one another as people of God.
We also have provided workshops and seminars for clergy, chaplains, seminarians, parish ministerial leaders and anyone who will listen! Our motto is “where two or three are gathered, we’ll come and speak.” If one person’s mind is changed, or one’s commitment increased, we have been successful. We have also been part of the diaconate formation program, training hundreds of deacons and their wives. As a result, some deacons are chaplains in state hospitals. Others provide parish outreach to people with mental illness and their families. All are more aware of the needs. Another structured program, Faith and Fellowship, ministers to people in residential facilities for people with mental illness. For some, Faith and Fellowship is their only spiritual support. Occasionally, we offer retreats and days of recollection for people with mental illness and for families. Our website provides educational material and announcements at www.miministry.org.
I appreciate and am in awe of the people on our commission and what has been accomplished over the years. It is a small, but dedicated group—people with mental illness, family members, clergy and professionals. I tell people we are an unfunded Gospel mandate! It is a mission for us, because we have been affected one way or another by mental illness. We have seen what a difference God makes in our lives, and what a difference being accepted by a community makes. It confirms God is an essential part of who we are and a critical part of our being whole. That message is worth shouting from the rooftops!