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In the Spirit: How can our parishes support those touched by mental illness?

by Christine Shafer
Image: Person holds out hand to help despairing womanResearch shows 40 percent of Americans with a mental health crisis turn to their faith and church first. Many see their faith community as a safe place that is available and filled with hope. They see in Christ a man who suffered, a victory so miraculous and a love so compelling.
Recently at Holy Family Parish in Caledonia, we partnered with the National Alliance for Mental Illness to offer their Family to Family class for those who support a person with mental illness. The class, which offers 30 hours of education and support, was to be limited to 25 people. Within the first week of registration, we had 35 registered and kept a waiting list of an additional 45 people who still wanted to attend the 12-week class. Clearly, mental illness is prevalent, caregivers and families want and need help and support, and people are turning to their faith communities for assistance.  

So how can we as faith communities help and support those with mental illness?

  • Parishes and disciples can work to end the stigma attached to mental illness. Nearly every person in our parishes has been touched by mental illness. One in five people lives with a mental health condition, and one in 25 lives with a serious mental illness. Jesus knew that those with mental illness were in the crowds longing to touch his garments to be healed, and free from stigma, shame and humiliation.
  • Parishes can offer educational events and support groups for those with mental illness and those who support them. Be there for these families. Sometimes families experience their loved one in crisis, coming close to harming themselves, going missing, not being able to get off the couch for weeks, developing fears that lock them in their thoughts. Running educational bulletin ads, developing care teams to minister to these families, and partnering with organizations that excel in this area would be great steps for faith communities to take in helping families.
  • We can watch our words. Words can cause shame, are not reflective of the dignity of each child of God and contradict our acceptance and love for those who have an illness that is out of their control. We would never look at someone with diabetes or hypertension and blame them for causing that illness; the same is true with mental illness. These words can include crazy, screw loose, wacko, insane, freak, demented or nut case. Let’s pay attention to our words and encourage others around us to do the same as one way of living our Christian discipleship.
  • We can reach out to an individual or family with mental illness. Offer support and connect them to help. Use simple and nonjudgmental  offers like: “How can I help?” or “Can I pray with you?” If appropriate, ask what would be most helpful, like: “Could you use meals for a few weeks?” or “Do you want me to watch the kids for an afternoon so you can catch your breath or get to an appointment?” Invite the family to sit with you at Mass and events. Remember that some of our new moms suffer with postpartum depression, some veterans suffer with PTSD, victims of sexual trauma may suffer from anxiety or PTSD, people with chronic pain disorders may suffer with serious depression, and some of those around us consider suicide to end the pain they are in. 
Remember that during the holiday season and winter months, depression, grieving and other mental health situations can worsen, and some may need our help and prayers even more. Call upon the Holy Spirit to show you who needs you today. Listen to the nudges and whispers to ask someone how they are doing. If faith communities are the first place most people turn for help in a mental health crisis, let’s be there for them and walk the journey of accompaniment that Pope Francis has encouraged us to. 


A 12-week Family to Family class for those who support a person with mental illness will be presented by the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) at Holy Family Parish in Caledonia in February. For dates and registration information, please contact Christine Shafer at  or visit


National Alliance for Mental Illness:
If someone you know is in distress or crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at
Christine Shafer is the director of pastoral care and faith formation at Holy Family Catholic Parish in Caledonia. Christine can be reached at