Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Sign-Up to receive updated stories from OC Catholic.

EPISODE #276
EMPOWERED BY THE SPIRIT: PATHWAYS TO YOUR FUTURE

On this episode, Deacon Steve Greco welcomes a very special father and daughter who work together in a ministry to the homeless. Their names are Gerald and Nicole Thompson. Give a listen and hear all about an initiative called PATHWAYS TO YOUR FUTURE.

This podcast is sure to inspire you. Give it a listen and be sure to share!

 

 

 

Originally broadcast on 6/13/21

ANSWERING THE CALL

If you fell off a ladder and broke your arm, you’d seek immediate medical assistance. Suppose, however, that your mind was broken. Would you ask for help? Given the social stigma that views mental illness as some sort of personal weakness, you might be reluctant to reach out – even if your life depended on it. 

Sadly, mental illness continues to remain largely hidden from our collective awareness. The result: thousands of people here in Orange County – those struggling with mental disorders and their loved ones – are suffering because of it.  

A 2018 report by the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that one in five U.S. adults suffered from a mental disorder during the previous year, and nearly 10 million struggled with a mental illness severe enough to cause serious functional impairment. The Orange County Health Care Agency indicated that in 2018 the area’s suicide rate, steadily rising since 2000, hit an all-time high for this century. These sobering statistics were cited before a deadly – and highly stressful – pandemic gripped the world. Yet we seemingly ignore the problem. 

“Many still confuse mental illness with a spiritual challenge,” says Linda Ji, director of the Diocese’s Office for Family Life. “If you have a mental illness, it’s not going to be prayed away. Prayer helps, but it’s not the same as getting medical help.” 

The Office for Family Life has been raising awareness in the parish community that mental disorders are medical in nature. “We try to support those with mental illness and their families with prayer and key resources,” Ji says. “And we educate people to be sensitive toward others with mental illness. We need to raise awareness and train clergy to recognize the signs of mental illness and to not only get people the help they need, but to make their parish a welcoming place for those who are suffering.” 

To that end, the Diocese hired Dr. Margery Arnold to serve as the Office for Family Life’s Mental Health Ministry coordinator. Her role: help create ministries that address mental illness in the Diocese’s parishes. 

“People tend to blame mental illness on a moral failure or a lack of effort,” Dr. Arnold says. “This is helping the stigma to persist.” 

Education and awareness are essential tools to fight this stigma, Dr. Arnold says. Ji concurs. “If someone has stage 4 cancer, of course we’ll pray for them, but we’ll also send them to an oncologist. It’s the same with mental illness. We’ll pray for them, but they may need medication and therapy – more than what we do in the faith community.” 

The effectiveness of combining faith and professional medical intervention to help those gripped with mental illness was one of the topics discussed during an interfaith webinar hosted on Oct. 6 by Be Well OC. Along with Bishop Kevin Vann, the webinar included input from local spiritual leaders Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church; Rabbi Richard Steinberg, a family therapist and senior rabbi of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot; and Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, a family therapist and mental health advisor at Access California Services. They discussed the importance of community in battling mental illness, the pandemic’s staggering effect, the essential role of public education and more.  

“People come to us with struggles. They’re isolated, fearful and alone,” Bishop Vann said during the webinar. “A faith community shows us that there’s a reality greater than the current moment.” 

Warren noted that “faith done well” can provide a number of important elements, including “a comfort level that surpasses anything.” This was essential, she added, following the suicide of her son. “That comfort kept me upright.” 

All panelists agreed that prayer and professional medical care must be employed together when dealing with mental disorders; the mentally ill and their families shouldn’t rely on one or the other separately.  

Thus far, notes Dr. Arnold, eight Diocese parishes have mental health ministries in place, and representatives from nine other parishes are involved at the Diocesan level, though they don’t yet have an active mental health ministry. She’s working hard to see that more parishes come on board.  

One parish, St. Irenaeus, has a particularly strong mental health ministry, thanks in large part to the efforts of faith community nurse Jennifer Dagarag and Deacon Jerry Pyne. “Dr. Arnold has really helped the parishes by providing more resources, support and monthly networking meetings to open the mental illness conversation,” Dagarag says. “Oftentimes, families dealing with mental illness don’t ask for help because of shame or guilt, and we really have to support them.” 

Dr. Arnold, Ji and Dagarag all stress that it’s essential to promote and provide access to key resources that address mental illness and provide “mental health first aid.” To access the Office for Family Life’s list of resources for the mentally ill, visit rcbo.org/familylife and click on “Behavioral Health.” In addition, every parish has a list of local mental health professionals, vetted by the Diocese, who incorporate Catholic spirituality into their work.  

“We have to talk to people and give them these resources before they’re in crisis,” Dagarag says. “When they’re already in crisis, they’ll be less apt to reach out.”  

The Be Well OC webinar’s interfaith panel is available on YouTube at bit.ly/bewellocinterfaith2020. 

I’M MENTALLY ILL

I  was diagnosed with major depression when I was 38 years old, but I’ve had bewildering, frightening, and inexplicably dark moods all my life. 

It took years to understand and accept that, like my father, I am mentally ill. Depression – in the form of deep sadness and a paralyzing fear of failure – has dramatically affected my life and the people who love me.  

 

* 

Major depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder are three of the most commonly diagnosed forms of mental illness. Though they are documented medical conditions – just like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension – mental illnesses carry a deep social stigma.  

Mentally ill people like me feel ashamed, even though our condition isn’t our fault.  

Admitting to having a mental illness is scary. It is illegal and cruel, yet many workplaces actively discriminate against the mentally ill. Parents, siblings, children, and spouses often feel embarrassed and helpless when a family member is diagnosed with a mental illness. So, most mentally ill people keep their condition private. Many fail to seek medical help.  

I’ve had bosses who thought depression is a myth. One friend told me it was ‘all in my head’ and advised me to ‘decide to be happy.’ People in my life have expressed fear, denial, and even disgust. 

 

* 

My husband finally convinced me to seek professional help. I found a psychiatrist, began seeing a therapist, and was prescribed Prozac. The drug and therapy helped me cope with life again. I was fine for more than 15 years. 

On Saturday, July 3, 2013 I was assaulted by a deep fear of leaving home.  As the hours passed that day, I grew increasingly agitated, upset, and fearful. I didn’t know what was happening. I slipped into a nearly comatose state as Saturday passed into Sunday. 

I could not eat, I did not sleep, I found it impossible to concentrate on anything, even a mindless television show or a fluffy magazine article. I couldn’t carry on a conversation. I felt like a zombie. I stared into space and often sat still and cried for hours. I told my husband that I wouldn’t actively try to kill myself, but would feel relieved if a bus hit and killed me. 

I was having what they used to call a nervous breakdown. My antidepressants had stopped working.  

It was the worst period of my life. When the depression finally lifted after five weeks on disability – thanks to intensive talk therapy and a change of medications – it was like leaving a dark room and stepping into the sunlight of a new day. 

 

* 

Today I am on an effective ‘cocktail’ of three different medications that keep me on an even emotional keel. I have a great psychiatrist I see every three months, and an amazing therapist I visit every few weeks. I’ve been functioning, successful, and happy for several years. 

I’m thankful that the Diocese of Orange is actively combatting the stigma of mental illness with seminars, conferences, support groups and prayer. Bishop Kevin Vann’s work with Rick Warren and Saddleback Church has done much to reduce stigma and bring mental illness out of the darkness. I pray that we continue to shine a light on this debilitating condition to remove the stigma we sufferers feel about being mentally ill. 

The Diocese of Orange is home to the New Hope Crisis Center, a starting place for with anyone with mental health questions. The crisis hotline is 714-New Hope. More resources can be found at newhopenow.org. The Diocese’s Office of Pastoral Care for Families in all Stages also can assist those suffering from mental health challenges, as well as those who support them.

THERE IS HOPE

I’m a visual learner. I learn best when I “see” the concept I’m trying to understand. That’s why I was so struck when listening to Dr. Richard Afable talk about how many people actually suffer every day from some form of mental illness. I interviewed Dr. Afable, executive vice president of Providence St. Joseph Health’s Southern California Region and president and CEO of St. Joseph Hoag Health (below), on the field at Angel Stadium, just prior to an Angel game. He explained that as many as one in every five individuals are impacted by some level of mental health challenge. The healthcare provider delivered these compelling stats to a stadium full of fans in an effort to put an end to the stigma associated with the condition, and to create awareness of the resources available to help. As I listened to Dr. Afable, I glanced at the baseball stadium that was the backdrop for our interview. I did the numbers in my head and then looked at the crowd: If one in five people are impacted, in a stadium with a capacity for 45,000 attendees, that’s 9,000 people. That’s a lot of people!

One of them, a patient who was literally saved by the caring people at St. Joseph Hoag Health’s Mission Hospital Laguna Beach, was about to throw out the first pitch, calling attention to the staggering number of individuals suffering from everything from depression to schizophrenia. I asked “John” about the path that led him to this point. He admitted he had been lost, frustrated and had considered taking his own life. He spoke so eloquently about his experience, and said that he now knows “there is hope.” As he recounted where he had been and how close he was to being suicidal it was clear that the painful experience had hit hard. Thankfully, now it is just a memory. He credits the St. Joseph Hoag Health program for his recovery. He was smiling. He was confident. Yet, he was clearly humbled by the experience and so very willing to encourage others to ask for help.

St. Joseph Hoag Health is a good place to begin. They are determined to end the stigma associated with mental health–the stigma that keeps people from talking about it. Because that is where recovery begins–with a conversation. While a typical visit to the doctor may include the standard lab tests and a focus on one’s physical health, the healthcare provider is striving to set a new standard so that an assessment of a patient’s mental wellness is also conducted during a routine visit.

It’s often said that if you have your health, you have everything. Today, that includes mental health.

REMOVING THE STIGMA OF MENTAL ILLNESS

In the past few years, prominent celebrities have come forward to share their struggles with mental illness.

Lady Gaga talked openly about suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome following a sexual attack when she was a teen. Prince Harry recently admitted that after his mother, Princess Diana, was killed in a car crash when he was 12, he shut down emotionally for years. Following the birth of her son, Gwyneth Paltrow says that she fell into a post-partum depression, which made her feeling like a zombie, devoid of feeling.

These celebrity revelations are part of a growing movement to de-stigmatize mental illness so that anyone who suffers from one of its many forms will find the courage to reach out for help.

Providence St. Joseph Health is playing a major role in this effort with the 2016 establishment of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, which will boost access to mental health services in Orange County and across the country, and will shape policy about it.

“Two years ago, when Providence and St. Joseph Health came together, both organizations considered what we could do together that we couldn’t do apart,” explains Annette M. Walker, president of strategy, Providence St. Joseph and chief executive at St. Joseph Health.

“Both management teams came to same conclusion — that we should tackle mental health, to be a bigger voice for advocacy and to draw attention to mental health issues,” she says.

 

Meeting a community need

The number of people who need help with mental or emotional problems is great. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, an estimated 9.8 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States suffered from severe mental illness (basic daily functioning was impaired) in 2015.

And more than 43 million adults suffered from some kind of mental illness — such as depression, anxiety, thinking about suicide, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Yet help for these many problems is not easy to find. “If you look at the health of most communities, one of the most under-addressed areas is mental health,” says Walker. “It might be a universally recognized problem, but it’s not universally addressed,” she says.

When people with mental health issues don’t have access to treatment such as medication, psychotherapy, support groups or clinics — or are too afraid or ashamed to look for help — they often end up in emergency rooms, local jails or on the streets. According to one report, about 25 to 30 percent of homeless people suffer some form of mental illness.

This places a heavy burden on police and fire departments and emergency room doctors.

 

Supporting services that work

Walker said that the new health system has committed to two actions: “First, we’ve created the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, which will drive a national mental health agenda, and fund research for mental health improvements,” she says. “Providence St. Joseph Health invested $100 million to start this foundation and we will be recruiting other institutions to get this work done nationally.

“Second, in California, Providence St. Joseph Health has committed $30 million of new funds to mental health programs in communities we serve.”

This effort is in sync with the Catholic view of health care. “Whole person care is a fundamental part of Catholic theology,” says Walker. “Addressing mental health is 100 percent consistent with that mission.”

Doctors and other caregivers in the Providence St. Joseph Health system are excited by the new initiative. “Mental health is a critical element of an optimal care team, and many physical issues have mental health components,” she says.

 

Help and understanding

Walker says the goals of the Institute are to boost programs that offer services as well as promote education about mental illness, including addiction, to help remove the stigma around it.

“Look at any room full of people, and most likely every person there has had some issue with mental health. We want to take away the stigma so that everyone, including family members, can find the right resources they need for help.”

ADDRESSING MENTAL ILLNESS AND ITS STIGMA

Alcoholism, depression, anxiety, drug addiction — these are forms of mental illness that millions of Americans suffer from every day, often with shame, hiding the reality from friends, family and co-workers.

This is exactly why Providence St. Joseph Health has recently invested an initial $100 million toward the creation of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness. Its purpose is to find ways to alleviate the stigma and the suffering that mental illness causes.

For Tyler Norris, MDiv, the newly appointed chief executive of the Institute, addressing the stigma is a priority because it keeps people with mental health problems from getting help. “We need to be able to talk about mental health issues—anxiety, depression, substance abuse—the way we talk about physical issues. We need to model that as a health system.”

 

First steps

Addressing the stigma of mental health problems is just one of five goals for the Institute. The other four are to build resilience in children, teens and families; reduce suffering from depression, anxiety and social isolation; reduce substance abuse; and create hope for people with serious and persistent mental illness.

Norris admits that these goals are ambitious, but when he starts his job in early January, he and his colleagues will begin by finding out what programs are already successful in those five areas.

“We are entering a discovery phase, to listen to communities,” he says, adding that he will be working with Maureen Bisognano, a nationally regarded expert on mental health and founding chair of the Institute’s Advisory Council on Mental Health and Wellness. “We will be very actively traveling to learn about existing institutions, and to hear about peoples’ perceptions about priorities—I’m very much looking forward to it,” he says.

The idea is to bolster successful community-backed programs that are already in place. “We want to build on existing initiatives, and leverage with communities to grow what is working,” says Norris.

 

Removing blame and shame

Substance abuse, particularly the rise in painkiller and heroin addiction, is a significant part of the country’s mental health problems. In his groundbreaking November 17 report, “Facing Addiction in America,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called addiction to drugs and alcohol a major public health challenge.

About 27 million adults suffer from some form of substance abuse disorder, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration—and only about 10 percent of them are getting treatment, out of fear of discrimination, shame, denial, or lack of access to help. Underlying addiction for many people are unresolved mental health issues.

“The important thing is to integrate mental health and substance abuse into primary care,” says Norris. “And second, we need to look at substance abuse as a treatable chronic disease, not a moral failure.” He adds: “We need to open that conversation so that people with addiction get support they need.”

 

Mission-led, faith-based

Norris, 57, was born in Hoag Hospital, and now lives with his family in Northern California. He is keenly aware of the mission of the Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of St. Joseph. “Many aspects of our lives impact our health, including access to education so young people can reach their God-given potential,” he says. “And social justice goes right to the heart of the Catholic mission to help the poor and vulnerable, to look after those who struggle the most. We are firm that our Institute will live out the mission of our foundresses.”