“I called them at one of my darkest times,” Robert Salas admitted.

Devastated by the shattering of a 17-year marriage and consumed by guilt and anxiety, Salas turned to the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

“I didn’t know where else to go. Trying to talk to family members — they did not want to hear what I needed to say.”

When Salas reached out to the diocese, his call was routed to Maricela Campa, manager of the Mental Health Ministry.

“She’s an awesome person. She’s the type of person who listens. She gave me good, concrete advice,” Salas said.

His history of trauma as well as a previous suicide attempt meant that the call was critical. Campa is well aware that answering calls such as Salas’ saves lives. She blinks back tears as she recalls the times callers have thanked her just for answering the phone in their darkest hour.

“That has been so meaningful to me and what the heart of the ministry is all about which is to be there and meet people where they are at,” Campa said.

Establishing a mental health ministry at a diocesan level was one of the top priorities of Bishop John P. Dolan when he was installed as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix in August of 2022. Bishop Dolan has lost three siblings and a brother-in-law to suicide, so he knows the heartbreaking trials of those who struggle with mental health issues.

Ten years ago, in the throes of depression, Salas took a handful of sleeping pills. Police were called to the scene, and he was hospitalized. “They had me on suicide watch,” Salas said. Reflecting on his brush with death, he recalled that his life was also spared at age 10 after a harrowing near-drowning in a river. He still has flashbacks.

“I remember going under, coming up and going back under. I must have gone at least 50 yards downriver. I was down at the bottom and could see the trees glistening over the water.”

Salas never received counseling for the incident, nor for the time he witnessed gang violence and dashed across the street to hold the victim of the attack in his arms as he died. Salas was just 15 years old when his own father died.

His Catholic faith, however, was ever an anchor.

Growing up in California, Salas has fond recollections of grandparents who were deeply Catholic and schooled him in the practice of the faith. He remembers kneeling with his siblings as they prayed the rosary in Spanish as their grandparents led them.

Mounting troubles

Seventeen years ago, Salas and his wife were married civilly but he wanted his marriage to be valid in the Catholic Church. The couple eventually celebrated the sacrament of matrimony at Holy Cross Parish in Mesa. For a while, the relationship seemed to prosper.

But there were ominous cracks.

On her side, there was a history of drug abuse and having experienced domestic violence in a previous marriage, troubles continued to simmer.

“Many people would say, ‘Bob, why are you in this relationship?’ I told them, ‘Because I love her. You don’t just leave a relationship. You try to work it out.’”

Last fall, everything came to a head when Salas’ adult son was battling an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Salas’ marriage was crumbling, and the added stress of his son’s serious illness didn’t help. “I told her (his wife) I needed to be with my son, that he might die.”

Salas eventually moved out to live with his son battling cancer. Years of turmoil and bitter arguments had taken their toll on his marriage.

On his way home from church one day, he started having thoughts of suicide again.

“It was depression. It was anxiety, guilt. Why did I leave her the way I did?” Salas said.

In 2021, the latest year for which the CDC provides data, 1,475 people in Arizona died by suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the state. Salas might have added to that statistic in 2023 if not for the call he made that fateful day last fall.

When Salas spoke with Campa of the Mental Health Ministry, he found the support he needed at a critical time. The ministry is focused on education, accompaniment, and advocacy, providing resources in a Catholic and meaningful way.

Resources and information are listed on the ministry’s homepage on the Diocese of Phoenix website. The first words visitors to the page encounter are soothingly reassuring: “You are not alone,” the page declares.

And that’s exactly what Salas discovered. The phone call he made brought light out of darkness.
“There was hope,” Salas said. “There’s people out there that are going to listen to your story. There’s people out there that can relate to what you’re going through because maybe one time they went through it, and they gave me hope.”

Although he’s still hurting, Salas said he’s slowly getting better. He continues to be very involved in his parish and the Knights of Columbus, serving food to the hungry at Paz de Cristo, praying in the adoration chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, and saying the rosary daily. Now, he consoles others who are reeling from broken lives.

His barber, he said, is going through a nasty divorce. “Every time I go to the shop, he’ll tell me about the breakup with his wife. He’s almost in tears and I embrace him. I tell him, “Hang in there. Things are going to get better.’” Salas has given him a rosary.

“The Blessed Mother is the one that embraces me now,” he said. “She’s my lady. And with her love, her intercessional prayers, and her beautiful face, I can make it.”