SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50 is not car accidents or cancer, but drug overdoses.
Suicide is not far behind, as the second-leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults and the 10th cause of death overall in the U.S. Researchers are now collectively calling suicide and overdose deaths “deaths of despair.”
Amid these sobering statistics, and at the beginning of national Mental Health Awareness Month, the Catholic bishops of California have issued “Hope and Healing,” a pastoral letter on caring for those who suffer from mental illness, calling Catholics to accompany them and to offer them Christian hope.
“Christ’s public life was a ministry of hope and healing. As Catholics, in imitation of Our Lord, we are called to provide hope and healing to others,” they said.
“We profess that every human life is sacred, that all people are created in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, a person’s dignity and worth cannot be diminished by any condition, including mental illness.”
The bishops called the spike in mental illness, suicide and drug overdoses a “heartbreaking” crisis and urged Catholics to help end the social stigma for those seeking support and help in these areas of their lives.
“Persons with mental illness often suffer in silence, hidden and unrecognized by others,” the bishops said.
“We clearly proclaim that there is no shame in receiving a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder. We affirm the need for education in our communities to remove the unjust prejudice and stigma often associated with mental illness,” they said.
Instead, all Catholics should use their unique gifts and talents to help alleviate these problems and to accompany those who suffer, the bishops noted, whether by providing friendship, spiritual support or professional support if appropriate.
They also encouraged a “both-and” approach to the healing of mental illnesses that accounted for the whole human person: spiritually, physically and psychologically.
“Some Christians harbor suspicions about psychiatry or clinical psychology and question their compatibility with the Catholic faith. Discernment is necessary since not all psychological approaches claiming to be ‘scientific’ are in fact supported by sound evidence,” they said.
“However, good science that recognizes the life and dignity of people and the Catholic faith are never at odds. Medical science has discovered many useful treatments to help those with mental illness, and Catholics should welcome and make use of these — including medications, psychotherapy and other medical interventions,” they added.
The bishops also emphasized that Catholics who experience mental illness or addiction should not feel like spiritual failures and noted: “Indeed, men and women of strong moral character and heroic holiness — from Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, St. Frances of Rome and St. Josephine Bakhita — suffered from mental disorders or severe psychological wounds. As evangelical pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, who lost a family member to suicide, said: ‘Your chemistry is not your character,’ and ‘your illness is not your identity.’”
Several popes in recent years have spoken or written about the importance of caring for those with mental illness, including St. John Paul II, who said during a 2003 address about depression that it is important to “stretch out a hand to the sick, to make them perceive the tenderness of God, to integrate them into a community of faith and life in which they can feel accepted, understood, supported, respected; in a word, in which they can love and be loved.”
Pope Francis in 2013 said that God is in everyone’s life, “Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.”
Furthermore, Francis’ continual call to reach out to those on the “peripheries” includes those who have experienced mental illness, the bishops noted.
“People who suffer from severe and persistent mental illnesses are among the most misunderstood, ignored and unjustly stigmatized members of our society. For them, our communities and parishes should be places of refuge and healing, not places of rejection or judgment,” they said.
“Our apostolic work should always bring us to those who are on the peripheries of society. We must venture out to the margins, rather than waiting for the marginalized to come to us.”
While recognizing the difficulty and sensitivity of discussing issues such as mental illness and addiction, the bishops urged Catholics to show that they are not afraid to accompany those who suffer.
They also said that while suffering usually does not make sense, Catholics can look to Christ for hope and healing, because he, too, knew great suffering when he was on earth.
“... we know that God never allows us to suffer alone. We believe that in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God descended to our level: He comes to meet us in our suffering, our illness and our affliction. We profess that God walked among us as one of us: In the Person of Christ, he endured our human pain with us to the end. On the cross and in his agony, Our Lord suffered not just our physical afflictions, but our mental anguish, as well,” they said.
“Out of the depths we cry to him, and he reaches down into these depths to raise us up. Christ’s kingdom has not yet reached its fullness, but we know in faith that it will at the end of time. On that day, all things will be made new.”
The bishop’s letter, in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, was posted to the website of the California Catholic Conference, along with a list of mental-health resources and suicide hotlines available in California.