April 26, 2005
The election of a new pope has been followed by a whirlwind of speculation about what aspects of John Paul II's legacy Benedict XVI will maintain or change. But one very important part of the late pope's vision was his views on society's responsibilities to those with severe mental illness. At a time when some Illinois officials, facing the pressure of growing budget deficits, are tempted to slash spending on mental health care, I hope they keep in mind John Paul's legacy, which Benedict is surely to follow.
In a speech to a 1997 International Conference for Health Care Workers, John Paul II said, ''[The Church] reminds the political community of its duty to recognize and celebrate the divine image of man with actions that support and serve all those who find themselves in a condition of severe mental illness. This is a task which science and faith, medicine and pastoral care, professional skill and a sense of common brotherhood must help to carry out through an investment of adequate human, scientific and socioeconomic resources.''
John Paul II reminded us that mental illness is just that: a disease or disorder of the brain, not a moral failing. And yet, the stigma can make it extremely difficult for people to become productive members of society.
Here in Chicago, the archdiocese has worked to put the late pope's words into practice through the work of the Commission on Mental Illness and other diocesan agencies. We offer programs that educate about mental illness issues and support people with mental illness and their families.
But religious organizations, charities and other private groups can only do so much. With almost 1 million Illinois residents suffering from a serious mental disorder in any given year, people with mental illness need state funds for treatments and services. Cutting funding would hurt some of our most vulnerable citizens. Funding cuts also would be fiscally irresponsible, as taxpayers would wind up paying more in the long run.
When services and treatment aren't available, many people with serious mental illness fall into the criminal justice system: stuck in a revolving door of arrest, imprisonment, release, rearrest, reimprisonment, etc., with terrible results for them and huge costs for taxpayers. In the worst situations, preventable tragedies result.
Communities suffer too, because time and resources are diverted away from law enforcement's real job -- protecting the public from crimes. Conservative estimates are that 16 percent of Illinois inmates and almost 60 percent of youth in Cook County juvenile justice facilities suffer from mental illness. If we could treat them, they could stay out of the most expensive social service agency we have: the prison system.
Cutbacks in mental health services also send people with mental illness to hospital emergency rooms, at a time when ERs already face a major crunch. Overcrowded emergency rooms mean long waits for everyone, prolonging the pain and suffering for all patients.
Pope John Paul II said, ''Our actions must show that mental illness does not create insurmountable distances, nor prevent relations of true Christian charity with those who are its victims.'' I hope that Benedict XVI soon echoes those words. Mental illness is a treatable disease. In Illinois, we should provide people battling mental illness the help they need because it is the right thing to do, and because it is the fiscally smart thing to do.
Deacon Tom Lambert,
Archdiocesan Commission on Mental Illness