It is staggering to learn that one in five Australians experience a mental health illness each year and that mental illnesses are the third leading cause of disability in Australia.
The soon-to-be-released mental disability guidelines for parishes by the Bishops Commission for Social Justice, also reports that only 65 per cent of people with a diagnosable mental disorder receive a mental health service.
Mental health is of growing concern in our society, exemplified by the fact that the leading cause of death for people aged 5 to 17 is suicide.
We know that, in 2016, 2866 people in Australia died from intentional self-harm, a high percentage being people with a diagnosable mental disorder.
A recent survey of secondary students revealed that mental health is of great concern to those in the senior high school years.
As a priest who has been ministering for nearly 42 years, I have encountered many people with some form of mental illness. They are part of our communities and this is a good thing.
Whereas, once a person with a mental illness could be consigned to a hospital or institution and so removed from sight by society, healthcare for people with a mental health issue, being provided now within the community, is believed now to be the better way to support them.
There is a stigma felt by the person with mental illness and a wariness on the part of people who encounter this form of illness. What results is that the person and their family can feel isolated and marginalised by society. Even worse, they can feel excluded from the community and their parish.
Some people I have known who have major mental illnesses have felt that they are being judged and are no longer valued in their parish. Perceptions of this sort, whether real or imagined, must concern us, as our Christian communities have to be places of welcome and inclusion for all.
The motivation to create this parish resource, I think, is captured in the title of guidelines. There we have the powerful words: Do Not be Afraid: Living as the Body of Christ. They challenge us all to be authentic.
The guidelines provide the parishes with very useful information about mental illness in its various forms. The issue of suicide in Australia receives special attention.
There are reflections on the role of the parish, what education is needed on the part of parishioners and clergy about mental illness, how we can interact with people with mental illness, what is the appropriate language to be used when engaging with people, and practical ideas on how to include people in the liturgical and general life of the parish.
The Christian community is mandated to include every member by acknowledging their baptismal call, and their gifts and presence.
Our faith requires of us to see Christ in each other and to honour his presence. With faith, we believe that every person is created in God’s image and their life is sacred.
We believe, as well, that the dignity and worth of each person is not diminished by any condition, including mental illness.
It has been through my many encounters with people with mental illness, that I have come to appreciate them and their challenging struggles. Their stories are both heartrending and inspiring.
I have learnt so much from them and I have discovered more about myself. They are gifts to the whole community, just as the parish can become a gift to them.
From pages 6 to 7 of Issue 20: ‘Wellbeing: Building stronger communities that flourish as a whole’ of The Record Magazine