“It’s time we brought this to the forefront.”

By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun

PHOENIX — When Most Rev. John P. Dolan became bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, he knew he wanted to start an office to address those suffering from mental health problems, including people considering taking their own life.

What he didn’t envision was how quickly his plans would come together.

The pleasantly surprising news came during a meeting with officials of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust soon after Dolan was installed in early August as the diocese’s fifth bishop. When representatives of the private foundation named for the late Catholic philanthropist asked the new bishop to share his interests with them, Dolan, who lost two siblings a number of years ago to suicide, didn’t hesitate.

Though his church family was there to support him many years go, Dolan said he needed something more.

“Losing a loved one is very, very hard. When we lose a loved one through suicide, it’s doubly difficult. I had support from the Church but not ongoing support, real opportunities to continue to talk about it. I buried so much that I just never really looked into growing as I should have grown,” the bishop explained in an 11-minute video, “Sharing my Story: A Life Changed by Suicide,” on the diocese’s website.

Eventually, Dolan found his way to counseling and support group, receiving the help he needed.

But the Church’s lack of widespread response to mental health has left untold numbers of individuals without a place to find effective help grounded in Catholic teaching.

That’s what makes Sunday’s announcement significant.

During the diocese’s first-ever Mass of Remembrance for those who have died by suicide, Bishop Dolan announced a significant financial grant from the Piper Trust will start the Diocese’s new Office for Catholic Mental Health Ministry.

“This office will focus on education – educating our fellow Catholic brothers and sisters who may not fully understand the depth of mental health. It will also focus on accompanying those who struggle with mental health. In our parishes we accompany those who struggle with suicide loss. Hopefully, you know the Church is here, reaching out to you, and you know you are loved, and you are not forgotten,” the bishop told a standing room only congregation at Ss. Simon & Jude Cathedral, estimated over 900 worshippers.

The bishop further explained the new Office will coordinate a series of gatherings where suicide survivors can share their stories and receive spiritual companionship and encouragement. The gatherings will be conducted at sites within each of the Diocese’s deaneries. A deanery is a cluster of churches within a specific region.

The third and final function of the new office will be to advocate for policy and funding before government and other entities.

“[This will] offer a voice for those who struggle with mental health and ask those in leadership, our government especially, to make sure mental health is always in the fore of all our discussions,” Bishop Dolan said.

Following the announcement, the bishop led a procession of clergy, including Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares, in the placement of carnations in baskets before one of the cathedral’s shrines – each carnation symbolizing a person lost to suicide.

Dolan said the diocese initially intended to read aloud victims’ names, but after an invitation on the diocesan website 3 weeks ago drew more than 1,200 requests, officials decided to allow congregants to walk up, one by one, and place their carnations in one of the tabletop baskets to the right of the cathedral’s main altar.

Worshippers were thrilled with the news of the new mental health office.

“I am so excited,” said Laura Redlinger, 30, who moved to Phoenix a few months ago from San Diego, where she attended Masses for suicide victims that Dolan regularly celebrated as auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of San Diego.

Redlinger lost her brother to suicide a decade ago, when he was age 20.

“I need a support group. There is not a lot in the Catholic Church. You can attend a grief support group but not specifically for someone who has lost someone to suicide.”

“I feel like there is almost a stigma within the Catholic Church. I personally feel more comfortable in groups outside the Church, being vulnerable, expressing my emotions and grief,” she explained. “There needs to be an awareness of how important mental health and our emotional well-being is in light of the Gospel, which we can apply to our personal troubles.”

The new office will be up and running by the end of the year, according to Dr. Anne Vargas-Leveriza of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, who is spearheading its organization along with Chancellor Dr. Maria Chavira.

In an interview with The Catholic Sun after Mass, Bishop Dolan said one of new office’s first tasks will be to furnish priests with a mental-health “first-aid kit” they can use to advise and respond to members of the public.

“There is a lot of people hurting,” he said. “And it’s time we brought this to the forefront.”