PHOENIX — The Diocese has marked the first year of an unprecedented outreach to individuals and those around them struggling with mental illness, seeing broad progress in expanding the historic initiative.
In what has become the signature program of Bishop John P. Dolan’s young episcopate, the Diocese of Phoenix has grown its Office of Mental Health Ministry from a singular physical site and web resource to 15 parish-level offices. A total of 138 individuals — including priests, women religious and laity — have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, a course that equips graduates to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance-use disorders.
The historic initiative has garnered significant national and international press coverage, including interviews with Bishop Dolan in America Magazine, Catholic News Service, EWTN, Our Sunday Visitor and St. Anthony Messenger. In addition, Bishop Dolan spoke on the topic at the USCCB Plenary Assembly in Baltimore.
There also has been broad outreach through a variety of platforms to a collection of Catholic organizations and agencies, educating them on mental health outreach, as well as a sweeping effort to build partnerships with groups — Catholic and non-Catholic — who have resources and influence to advocate for improved public policy on mental health from a Catholic perspective. These include Catholic mental health professionals, the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, St. Vincent de Paul, Creighton University and the Arizona Trauma Informed Faith Coalition. A weekly Mental Health Minute was launched on the diocesan social media platforms to create awareness and offer practical tips for a variety of mental health topics.
Finally, the Diocese has accompanied its patients, families and friends through Masses, novenas, prayers, and the establishment of support groups. These include the annual Mass of Remembrance for those who have died by suicide, the new annual Green Mass to thank and pray for mental health professionals, a walking rosary and Novena to St. Dymphna, the patroness of those suffering mental illness.
Under Bishop Dolan’s vision, this is only the beginning.
“We’re (doing this) slowly but surely,” said Bishop Dolan speaking immediately after the Diocese’s 2nd annual Mass of Remembrance Sept. 10.
“We can’t do it alone,” echoed Maricela Campa, the Office of Mental Health Ministry’s program manager, at the office’s ribbon-cutting in December of 2022.
The multitude of steps reflect a three-pronged approach first outlined by the bishop in September of 2022, a mere month after his installation. This includes education, accompanying those suffering as well as families and others around those individuals, and advocating for more effective mental health policy.
Two of the key milestones came with the opening of the new Office of Mental Health Ministry headquarters at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in downtown Phoenix in December of 2022 and, more recently, the bishop’s commissioning of 15 parish representatives Nov. 9.
The latter event took place at the headquarters of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust in central Phoenix. The Trust’s financial gift launched creation of the Diocesan office and its fixture, The Well.
Punctuated by a 36-inch-tall circular structure of stone blocks filled with 50 pounds of fire glass to resemble water, and a painting portraying the Woman at the Well from the Gospel of St. John (4:1-26), the Well offers a physical setting of comfort and peace to visitors.
Many already have found solace there in the midst of despair.
Monica Charnell, who lost her 31-year-old son in 2022 called it a great support.
“It’s been hard to find places who will listen and accompany me in my grief,” she said. “I’m drawing completely on my faith. I’m so appreciative that Bishop Dolan has made this available to those of us experiencing intense grief.”
Mary Louisoder lost her mother a year ago “very tragically and unexpectedly,” and needed someone to walk with her. “I started seeking out people who could understand me in my grief, focused around my faith. I think being focused around our faith and walking through the journey of grief (and) learning you’re not alone is one of the most important parts of healing,” she said. “The Well has been a place of refreshing peace, hope, love and joy — knowing together as a Christian and Catholic family, we are in this together,” Louisoder continued.
Robert Salas found comfort as well during a “difficult time” in his life.
A local Catholic and member of the Knights of Columbus, Salas said, “Our Lord is always there. We’re never alone. (Office of Mental Health Ministry program manager) Maricela (Campa) was there to show me that (truth) when I needed it. Don’t give up,” he added.
IN GOD’S IMAGE
Bishop Dolan’s own story, well-documented with the loss of three siblings and a brother-in-law to suicide over the years, was the influence for the ministry.
Pope St. John Paul II, addressed the need for Catholic outreach on mental health in during the 11th International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers in November 1996. The pope reminded the gathering those suffering from mental illness bear God’s image and likeness, “as does every human being.” “Christ took all human suffering on himself, even mental illness,” John Paul II said. The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers (CMHM), a nationwide lay association, said while a number of dioceses across the United States are seeking to build similar programs, the Diocese of Phoenix is in the forefront.
This past October, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a National Catholic Mental Health Campaign to address the significant mental health crisis across the United States which has been especially amplified in recent years with the impact of the global pandemic. The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness, remove the stigma of mental illness and mental health challenges, and advocate that those who struggle receive help.
A MENTAL HEALTH ‘FIRST AID KIT’
Mental health remains a problem in the United States today.
In August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced the nation’s suicide rate continues to rise across most demographic areas. Using information from death certificates and first responder records, the CDC estimated 49,449 individuals took their lives in 2022, up from 48,183 in 2021. “Nine in 10 Americans believe America is facing a mental health crisis,” stated U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
In the coming year, the Diocese of Phoenix will broaden its effort.
The Office of Mental Health Ministry will add more parishes to its outreach, while those already participating create their own version of The Well. The office also plans to train more individuals in Mental Health First Aid, as well as add instructors. The training provides skills needed “to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance-use problem or experiencing a crisis,” according to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
Neither an equipped trainee nor the Diocese intend outreach to be diagnostic in nature or provide treatment or therapy.
If God is speaking to your heart about this ministry, or if you have a heart for those with mental health concerns, please contact your local parish or the Office of Mental Health Ministry at 602-354-2401 or email: email@example.com.