New office to educate, accompany and advocate on behalf of mentally ill and their families

By Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun

With nearly one in five Americans living with a mental illness, the need for the local Church to address this issue is clear. Now, for the first time ever, the Diocese of Phoenix will be home to an Office of Mental Health Ministry.

Bishop John P. Dolan, installed as the fifth bishop of Phoenix in August, has a heart for the cause, having lost three siblings and a brother-in-law to suicide. He held a Mass of Remembrance Sept. 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral to honor the memory of those lost to suicide. Some 1,200 people submitted names of loved ones they wanted to commemorate.

At a Dec. 13 press conference prior to the ribbon-cutting for the new Office of Mental Health Ministry, Bishop Dolan noted that the threefold purpose of the office will be education, accompaniment of those suffering, and advocacy for better policy and funding from the government and other sources.

In an interview prior to the ribbon-cutting, he emphasized the need for priests, deacons and anyone involved with bereavement ministry to have a basic understanding of mental-health issues.

There’s a need for “a certain mental-health literacy, that we know what we’re talking about so that we’re not saying other things that may contradict the Holy Spirit who moves through the world of science, the science of psychology,” Bishop Dolan said.

Maricela Campa has been selected to lead the Office of Mental Health Ministry. Bilingual and bicultural, Campa spent eight years working for an Arizona organization serving families that had Department of Child Safety involvement. She is certified by the Arizona Trauma Institute as a trauma support specialist and has several other certifications in areas such as suicide prevention and helping survivors of domestic violence and adverse childhood experiences.

“My hope is to work alongside Bishop Dolan to really educate about the importance of mental health, bringing that awareness and ensuring that through education, we can serve many people,” Campa said.

At the press conference, Campa exuded enthusiasm during her bilingual remarks.

“I’m very excited to be here, to join Bishop Dolan and really all of us, because this work, we can’t do it alone,” Campa said.

Welcoming atmosphere

The Office of Mental Health Ministry is tucked into a spacious corner on the first floor of the downtown Diocesan Pastoral Center. The new office includes an entrance that can be accessed from the DPC’s courtyard. Inside, a welcoming atmosphere features soft lighting, comfortable chairs, and a cream-colored sofa with pillows that beckon. Pamphlets listing area mental health resources and the contact information for various counselors are stacked on a side table.

And then there’s The Well.

“Jesus meets the woman at the well and not only holiness happens from that, wholeness happens from that, wellness happens from that,” Bishop Dolan said. “The idea is that we gather, and we accompany one another.”

In the Gospel account, (John 4:1-41), Jesus is passing through the Samaria and stops at Jacob’s well, asking the lone, troubled woman there for a drink of water. The ensuing conversation leads to the revelation that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.

The Well, Bishop Dolan said, is aimed at helping people find hope. “All most counselors are looking for in a person who is struggling with mental health is a sense of hope. And our goal is to help celebrate that sense of hope, that dimension of hope. That’s the most important piece — that people have a sense of hope as we have these moments of encounter around The Well.”

Local media were given a tour of the Office of Mental Health Ministry following the ribbon-cutting. Reporters, diocesan staff, and Virginia G. Piper trustees walked through the office with many stopping to view The Well. Inside a separate room and constructed of stone blocks, the 36-inch-tall circular structure is filled with 50 pounds of fire glass that appear as crystalline water. A large painting that portrays the Woman at the Well biblical scene adorns one wall and 12 chairs hug the walls.

“I am excited for it. I think it is much-needed,” Dr. Chavira said of the new ministry. “One of my biggest hopes would be individuals that are coming to this ministry, or through this ministry as people learn about it, that people will recognize, just like the Woman at the Well, the immense love of Christ.”

Dr. Anne Vargas-Leveriza, director of the Office of Youth and Child Protection, helped design the new office space. She said the goal was to provide a haven that feels safe and secure and that wouldn’t push people away.

“There’s a lot of texture. Immediately when you walk into the room, it’s a great place,” Dr. Vargas-Leveriza said.

Both Dr. Chavira and Dr. Vargas-Leveriza emphasized that the Office of Mental Health Ministry will not be offering therapy. Instead, there will be a concerted beginning in January effort to educate priests, deacons and the faithful about mental health. The goal is to initiate mental health ministry in each of the diocese’s deaneries and then eventually, to reach each of its 94 parishes.

Support for families

Support groups for those who have lost loved ones to suicide will also be a focus of the Office of Mental Health Ministry.

“It’s going to be a place where individuals who have had family members that have died by suicide can gather and talk,” Dr. Chavira said. “We don’t have those spaces right now and that’s a big one.”

In 2020, 45,979 Americans died by suicide and another 1.2 million attempted to take their own lives.

The families and loved ones of those experiencing mental illness will also be served by the new office. Bishop Dolan envisions them gathered around The Well for discussions.

“Navigating family life with a person who is struggling with mental health — do we walk this person out the door or do we include them in our regular family life, and if we do, how do we do that without disrupting the rest of the family? Those little gatherings will help talk about best practices on how to navigate,” Bishop Dolan said.

To spiritually support the work of the Office of Mental Health Ministry, a special Mass will be offered in the DPC chapel on the second Monday of every month for the intention of those who struggle with mental health and those who have lost loved ones to suicide. This will coincide with the same monthly intention of Pope Francis. A relic of St. Dymphna, patron saint of those suffering from mental health issues, is on display in the office as well.

At the press conference, Bishop Dolan thanked the trustees of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust whose substantial gift made the establishment of the Office of Mental Health Ministry possible. Mary Jane Rynd, former CEO of the trust, said she was both honored and humbled to be present at the ribbon-cutting. She noted that early on, the trustees were impressed by everything they read about Bishop Dolan, particularly his knack for meeting people where they are.

“We are all confident that Virginia Piper is thrilled with this decision of the bishop to use this gift for such an underserved community of people,” Rynd said. “It’s especially meaningful to me since I’m the daughter of someone who suffered from mental-health challenges and who was hospitalized for months.

“It’s just so heartwarming to know that people are actually going to be working on this so that other families might be spared such challenges.”