Catholic Response to Mental Health Crisis: Offering a Ray of Hope For Those Suffering in Depression and Suicide

The Diocese of Phoenix’s new ministry is part of a larger trend in the Church aimed at providing support for those experiencing mental illness and their families.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is considered a leading cause of death in the United States, with about one death every 11 minutes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is considered a leading cause of death in the United States, with about one death every 11 minutes. (photo: Shutterstock)

When Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix announced the creation of an office for mental-health ministries in his diocese on Sept. 2, the decision wasn’t just pastoral. It was personal.

Born the seventh of nine children in San Diego, Bishop Dolan experienced the tragedy of suicide in his own family several times.

He was only in the eighth grade when his older brother Tom committed suicide at the age of 19 in the mid-1970s. The grief that his family passed through was made worse by the fact that psychological counseling wasn’t common in those days.

“Psychology was considered suspect. People weren’t sure about it. You were supposed to work your own way through things in life, back then,” Bishop Dolan told the Register.

Though his Catholic parish community came together and organized a funeral Mass, with Franciscan sisters reaching out and praying for the family, there was nothing in the way of follow-up.

“It was a time when you just didn’t talk about it,” said Bishop Dolan. “Follow-up was not available anywhere. That caused frustration for everybody. You were just supposed to move on.”

Bishop Dolan’s sister Therese died by suicide in the mid-1980s, when Bishop Dolan was a junior at the seminary of the University of San Diego. The day the Dolan family received the news was Thanksgiving Day. They had been waiting for Therese and her husband to arrive for the holiday meal.

“Everything was ready, and the table was set. They were the last to arrive,” he said.

Neither would come. Therese had died the day before, and her husband died by suicide soon thereafter.

Bishop Dolan is quick to point out that in the midst of the family’s absolute devastation, their parish community did come together to help them: The pastor, the associate pastor and religious sisters in the community all came to walk with them and accompany them in their grief.

It is this model of accompaniment that Bishop Dolan wants for all parishes.

The planned focus of the Office for Catholic Mental Health Ministry includes mental-health education for clergy and laity. The office aims to provide opportunities for Catholics to find support in accompanying friends and loved ones who struggle with mental illness.

The new office will provide priests with a mental-health “first-aid kit” to help them advise or respond to those in need, Bishop Dolan told Catholic News Agency.

Meeting a Need

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is considered a leading cause of death in the United States, with about one death every 11 minutes. In 2020, 1.2 million American adults attempted suicide, while 46,000 people actually died by suicide. Mental illness in general is also widespread, with the National Institute for Mental Health estimating that 5.6% of adult Americans suffer from severe mental illness.

Despite these numbers, the Catholic Church does not have a formal mental-health ministry across the country.

To date, there are between 30 and 40 dioceses out of 190 dioceses in the U.S. that offer some kind of mental-health ministry in their parishes,” said Deacon Ed Shoener of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Deacon Shoener felt this lack of mental-health ministry acutely when his daughter Kathleen committed suicide in 2016.

“She had bipolar disorder, which means she had bouts of mania and depression. She died at 29,” said Deacon Shoener.

Precisely because of his personal experience, Deacon Shoener believes that there is a need for this kind of ministry, “and for the Church to be more responsive,” he said.

In 2018, Deacon Shoener decided to form the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers (CMHM) with a group of other Church leaders, including Bishop Dolan as national chaplain.

“The idea was to form a network of these kinds of ministers,” said Deacon Shoener. “Our hope is that something like this would be in every parish. It would be a ministry, not mental-health care. We provide accompaniment and support to people going through mental-health problems.”

The deacon explained that one of CMHM’s goals is “to demystify mental illness in the parish.” To this end, the organization is offering an eight-part film series created by Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries that explores key mental-health issues and considers ways to offer companionship and care.

Deacon Shoener hopes that every parish in the U.S. would be a place where any parishioner can go and talk to someone on staff about their mental-health problems.

“That person would point you to local resources,” said Deacon Shoener. “They would be able to talk to you about where God is in the midst of the problem. You might be able to meet with other people in the parish with mental-health conditions in a support group.”

Because Deacon Shoener couldn’t find Catholic books on how to deal with the suicide of a loved one, he edited two books on the subject with Bishop Dolan: When a Loved One Dies by Suicide: Comfort, Hope, and Healing for Grieving Catholics and Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders.

He adds that specifically Catholic mental-health support is important, because public mental-health support doesn’t necessarily speak about God or acknowledge the role of faith in healing.

Barbara Zahler, a mental-health minister in the Diocese of San Jose and board member for CMHC, founded a group called “Out of the Wilderness,” a weekly bereavement support group for people who have lost loved ones by suicide. Groups like this can be a model for other Catholic parishes.

The Power of Prayer

Bishop Dolan held a Mass for the remembrance of those killed by suicide on Sept. 4 at Sts. Simon & Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. He asked people to send in names online beforehand so that they could be read out loud at the Mass as a way to pray for those who have died.

“We anticipated getting 100 names, but we got 1,200 names,” he said.

Because there were too many names to read out loud, given the length of the Mass, it was decided to project the names on a screen, which were then scrolled through.

“People were asked to bring up a white carnation and place it in a basket in front of the altar to remember their loved ones,” said Bishop Dolan.

The Mass was packed, with standing room only. There were few dry eyes as the pile of white carnations grew.

“It was very moving,” said Bishop Dolan.

Other ways for parishes to help include praying for those with mental-health challenges in the Prayers of the Faithful every week and making sure that every parish has a list of trusted, local, certified psychologists and psychiatrists who are either Catholic or affirming to people of faith.

Deacon Shoener suggests honoring St. Dymphna, the patron saint of those with mental-health problems.

CMHM partners with the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network, which can be accessed through the website. There is a “Click to Pray” button that allows people to pray with CMHM.

Most of the people who are getting involved in this type of ministry either have a family member who has died by suicide or have been personally touched by suicide in their community.

For instance, the suicides of several people in her parish prompted Barbara Zahler to pursue mental-health ministry in her home Diocese of San Jose.

Zahler’s background as a hospital chaplain had given her training in palliative care and mental health. She was also trained to be a facilitator for bereavement support. Still, at the moment of the suicides, she was not sure how to move forward. Further training with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention gave Barbara the courage to move forward in mental-health ministry.

Today, she is a board member for CMHC and founded Out of the Wilderness, the diocese’s weekly bereavement support group for people who have lost loved ones by suicide.

Deacon Shoener believes, along with the other members of the CMHC board, that people need to have confidence in themselves in order to do this type of ministry.

“You don’t need a degree to do this,” he said. “Because seminaries don’t [focus on] mental-health issues, we are working to help clergy recognize mental-health problems.”

“The biggest part of this,” said Zahler, “is to be with people and to listen to their story.”

Sidenote: The Obituary of Deacon Ed Shoener’s Daughter Kathleen

When Deacon Shoener sat down for the painful task of writing Kathleen’s obituary, he decided to specifically note that she had died by suicide, something which is rarely included in obits. He made sure to state that Kathleen’s bipolar disease did not define her.

The obituary touched people’s hearts in a profound way because it spoke about the needs of people who suffer from mental illness. What astounded the Shoener family was the reaction people had to this obituary.

“It went viral and eventually received coverage in The Washington Post,” said Deacon Shoener.


Kathleen “Katie” Marie Shoener, 29, fought bipolar disorder since 2005, but she finally lost the battle on Wednesday to suicide on Aug. 3, 2016. So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness. People say that “she is bipolar” or “he is schizophrenic.” Over the coming days as you talk to people about this, please do not use that phrase. People who have cancer are not cancer; those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar — she had an illness called bipolar disorder. Katie herself was a beautiful child of God. The way we talk about people and their illnesses affects the people themselves and how we treat the illness. In the case of mental illness, there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further. Our society does not provide the resources that are needed to adequately understand and treat mental illness. In Katie’s case, she had the best medical care available, she always took the cocktail of medicines that she was prescribed, and she did her best to be healthy and manage this illness — and yet, that was not enough. ​Someday a cure will be found, but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from cancer, heart disease or any other illness. Please know that Katie was a sweet, wonderful person that loved life, the people around her — and Jesus Christ.