· Vatican City ·

In an interview with the Italian newspaper ‘La Stampa’

Vatican holds first-of-its-kind conference on mental health

02 February 2024

In 2016, at the age of 29, Deacon Ed Shoener’s daughter, Katie, committed suicide. She had wrestled with bipolar disorder for over a decade. Katie’s death prompted Deacon Shoener to begin advocating for mental health awareness within the Church. He soon founded the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, a non-profit that supports parishes and dioceses in establishing mental health ministries.

Deacon Shoener shared this story at a first-of-its kind conference in the Vatican on Monday, 29 January, which brought together individuals active in Catholic mental health ministry across the globe. Participants included Vatican officials, representatives from the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, and individuals working on the frontline in Moldova, India, South Africa and elsewhere.

Monsignor Anthony Ekpo, Undersecretary at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that mental health has become a priority for his Dicastery following its conversations with local churches around the world, which often voice major concerns about the issue. Particularly worrying, Monsignor Ekpo said, are the human rights abuses sometimes committed against those with mental health challenges. He also noted that anxieties and concrete difficulties related to the climate emergency can greatly aggravate mental health problems.

Bishop John Dolan from the US Diocese of Phoenix noted that there is a real shortage of mental health professionals across the globe. For this reason, he said, it is very important that the Church attempt to step into the gap and provide assistance to individuals who would otherwise receive none. He stressed however, that the Church’s role in these cases cannot be to diagnose, prescribe or treat, work which must be left to professionals. Instead, he said, the Church must  accompany those with mental health problems, and their family members.

In his own Diocese, Bishop Dolan said, he runs a number of projects with this aim. One of them is a mission to educate priests to make them more aware of mental health issues, so they can connect those suffering from them with professionals. Too often, he said, priests misdiagnose those with mental health issues as suffering from spiritual problems. Bishop Dolan also helps counsellors and other mental health professionals in his Diocese — whose jobs do not generally pay well — to find affordable housing so they can carry out their vital work.

Sr Isabel Cantón of the Sisters Hospitallers, a religious order founded in 1881 specifically to care for those suffering from mental illnesses, echoed Bishop Dolan’s concern regarding the shortage of trained pastoral workers. Sr Cantón noted that in the UK, some centres run by her congregation are now entirely staffed by laypeople, and have no sisters or chaplains. She also spoke of the need to adapt the spiritual care they offer to a context where not all residents are Catholic.

Another perspective was offered by Dr Nunziata Comoretto of the  Pontifical Academy for Life, which is primarily concerned with the issues of abortion and euthanasia. Dr Comoretto stressed the key significance of caring for those who are depressed, burnt-out, or otherwise struggling with mental health challenges, so that they never feel that euthanasia is the best option left to them. She also noted the substantial impact that abortion can have on women’s mental health.

The conference then heard from a number of individuals on the front-lines in various countries, helping to coordinate the work of the Association of Mental Health Ministers there. One of these statements was from Anastasia Miranova, who works at Caritas Moldova. She noted that her country has recently received very large numbers of refugees from Ukraine, many of whom, given the traumatic events in their country, are suffering from mental health problems.

Turning to the close connection between economic and health poverty, Ms Miriam Amerio — who works for Caritas Italy, the charitable arm of the Italian Catholic Bishops’ Conference — presented a number of statistics on the subject. She noted that, among those suffering from mental illnesses, those with the fewest economic resources are most affected.

Mr Federico di Leo, meanwhile, an active member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay group which works with the poor and homeless in Italy — many of whom, he said, struggle with mental health issues — explained that it is not sufficient to help individuals for a short while; rather, any help given must be consistent and sustained. “We never abandon anyone”, he stressed.

By Joseph Tulloch