Mental illness does not discriminate, and neither should Catholics, according to New York state’s Catholic bishops, who on Feb. 4 issued a pastoral statement calling for Catholics to show acceptance and compassion toward mentally ill individuals.
That same day the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops in matters of public policy, released three recommendations related to the care and treatment of those suffering from mental illness.
“It is our duty and the duty of every pastor, every chaplain, every religious education director and Catholic school principal, and all others in positions of Church leadership at every level to welcome with openness and affection those men, women and children who are afflicted with any form of mental illness and integrate them into the life of the Church to the fullest extent possible. Furthermore, all Catholics are called to be welcoming of this population in their churches, schools and communities,” the bishops wrote in their pastoral statement, titled “For I Am Lonely and Afflicted: Toward a Just Response to the Needs of Mentally Ill Persons.”
The Catholic conference recommends an increase in community-based mental-health services and services within the criminal-justice system for mentally ill people, as well as a change in the mental-health reporting requirements in the NY SAFE Act, the gun control bill passed in early 2013.
The NY Safe Act requires mental-health and medical professionals to report any individual they believe is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others. Previously, such professionals had been required to report individuals they believed posed an imminent threat to themselves or others.
“Providers fear that this lower standard will discourage individuals from getting the help they need, out of fear of being reported. Without mental health services, a mentally ill person with violent tendencies may not get the medication or therapy he or she needs that would prevent such incidents in the first place,” the Catholic conference wrote. “We therefore join with the mental health community in urging an amendment to the NY SAFE Act to return to the ‘imminent danger’ language, with a specific definition of what constitutes an imminent danger. We further urge that records of previous mental health hospitalization be expunged sooner than the five years in current law, also with the goal of reducing barriers to persons seeking treatment.”
In their pastoral, the bishops noted that age, economic status, ethnicity and social status do not exempt anyone from the effects of mental illness. More than 61 million adults experience some form of mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. These people are often stigmatized and ostracized in society, but Catholics are called to do the opposite and embrace these people, the bishops wrote in their statement.
“Our Judeo-Christian tradition calls us to be witnesses of God’s love and mercy and to be instruments of hope for these individuals,” the bishops wrote. “We have no better example of how to respond to those with mental illness than that of Jesus Christ. Time and again throughout the New Testament, we encounter our Lord’s mercy toward this population. The curing of this affliction in men, women and children was a central part of Jesus’ healing ministry.”
The bishops noted that while our society has made great strides in understanding and treating mental illness, labels and fears about mental illness sometimes influence public policies and patients’ access to necessary services. For instance, the bishops wrote, many people assume mentally ill individuals are more prone to violence against themselves or others. On the contrary, only one in 20 violent crimes are committed by people with severe mental illness, according to a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. This slightly elevated risk of violence among people with mental illness diminishes significantly with medication and treatment, but tragic examples of mass shooting by people with untreated mental illness perpetuate fear, the bishops wrote.
“We note our solidarity and our spiritual closeness with victims and families of victims of violence committed by all persons, especially persons with mental illness. As painful as such incidents are, they are magnified even more by the realization that had the offenders received effective ongoing treatment prior to the violent acts, many of these tragedies may well have been avoided,” they wrote.
The fear and the stigma attached to mental illness threaten public support for movement toward a community-based model of treatment, which the bishops believe is crucial. Thus, the Catholic conference recommends increasing funding for the community-based system of mental-health services throughout the state.
New York’s Office of Mental Health plans to consolidate several of the state’s inpatient psychiatric hospitals into regional centers, according to the Catholic conference. This plan would “refocus mental health services further in the direction of a community-based model, with inpatient services targeted for individuals with only the most serious mental illnesses.” The Catholic conference urges the state not to close hospitals until the community-based system is funded at a higher level, and to use funds saved from hospital downsizing to boost community-based supportive housing, employment and peer services.
“We urge an expansion of an integrated health home community network approach combining mental health, addiction and medical treatment. School and community-based prevention screening and early intervention programs should be implemented to ensure that people who need help are identified as early as possible,” the Catholic conference wrote in its recommendations, which were developed in consultation with the Behavioral Health Committee of the state’s Council of Catholic Charities Directors.
The conference also is pushing for a cost-of-living adjustment for the salaries of mental-health service providers.
The Catholic conference also would like to see the state provide the resources necessary for law-enforcement agencies to create crisis intervention teams (CITs). The police officers on such a team would have additional training in mental-health issues and would respond to situations involving citizens exhibiting signs of emotional disturbance. Team members also would be able to refer such citizens to treatment facilities or other support services.
“Many localities have experienced a decreased use of force on mental health related calls following CIT implementation, and fewer injuries to both police officers and citizens. Another common finding is that CITs result in an increase in referrals for assessment and treatment and subsequent lower arrest rates,” according to the Catholic conference’s recommendations.
The conference also recommends increasing the mental-health services provided to inmates and urges that solitary confinement only be used when absolutely necessary.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The full text of the bishops’ pastoral statement and the Catholic conference’s recommendations may be found at www.nyscatholic.org.Tags: Health, NY Catholics