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 CNS Story:

MENTAL ILLNESS Oct-11-2007 (770 words) xxxn

Using technology, experts offer advice on people with mental illness

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A psychiatrist and a hospital chaplain offered advice to a nationwide audience Oct. 10 about how to support people with mental illness and their families at their parishes.

But the audience members were not gathered together in one room. Instead they were sitting at computer screens -- some alone, some in groups -- at 50 sites from coast to coast for the first "Webinar" sponsored by the National Catholic Partnership for Disability and its year-old Council on Mental Illness.

The hourlong seminar, conducted over the World Wide Web, was part of the Washington-based organization's observance of National Mental Health Awareness Week, Oct. 7-13, and took place the day after the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding, Oct. 9.

Dr. Thomas P. Welch, a psychiatrist in private practice in Portland, Ore., and chairman of the Interfaith Council on Mental Health in Portland, said parish staff members are often "the first responders to people experiencing mental health crises." In that group of first responders he includes "clergy, religious, educators, the secretary, the janitor and the groundskeeper."

Welch was joined in the Webinar by Sister Sharon Collver, a chaplain at the Oregon State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital with campuses in Salem and Portland. Sister Sharon, a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, is also a member of the interfaith council.

People with mental illness "have a wide range of expressions of their faith," Sister Sharon said.

"Their faith expressions might be colored by the symptoms of mental illness," she added, "but the flame of faith remains within each one."

Reviewing some of the symptoms of various types of mental illness, Welch stressed the importance of an accurate diagnosis to predict the course of the illness and its prognosis. But the response to any mental illness should include biological, psychological, social and spiritual elements, he said.

He summarized what parishes and individuals can do for people with mental illness and their families in a few words: "Pay attention. Welcome. Include. Accommodate. Pray. Learn and teach."

He compared how a parish might accommodate a person with lung disease and one with mental illness. A person with lung disease might need to bring oxygen into church, while a person with mental illness might need to listen to music on earphones to quiet the voices in his or her head.

"Don't say, 'Take those earphones out. It's disrespectful,'" Welch said. "You wouldn't say to a person with lung disease, 'Take off that oxygen. It's disrespectful.'"

Saying that "subtle changes in language can make a difference," Welch encouraged "person-first language" that refers to "a person with mental illness" rather than to "the mentally ill."

He also urged the inclusion of parishioners with mental illness by inviting them to join in parish activities, volunteer or bring up the offertory gifts at Mass and by encouraging parents of children with mental illness to bring them to Mass.

Welch said there should be some accommodation for those whose mental illness is manifested in pacing, talking or other disruptive behaviors. "But that doesn't mean to acquiesce," he said. "Minimum expectations apply to everyone. And inappropriate or dangerous behavior must be pointed out so the person has an opportunity to correct it."

Sister Sharon focused on her hospital work among those with mental illness and said her job is "finding the flame of faith and keeping it going."

She said patients in psychiatric hospitals manifest their religious beliefs in a variety of ways:

-- By attending worship services.

-- By reading the Bible.

-- By talking to other patients about their faith, "even to the point of proselytizing."

-- By requesting religious articles and symbols.

-- By requesting a visit by the chaplain or other clergy, "especially at times of crisis or loss."

-- By spending quiet time in prayer and contemplation.

-- By requesting help in "staying connected to their faith and/or reconnecting with a faith community upon discharge."

In other words, Sister Sharon said, "they practice their faith, talk about their faith and seek spiritual support just like someone hospitalized for any other medical condition."

But she said dealing with psychotic symptoms, including religious delusions, can bring some challenges. She recommended "listening for the kernel of reality beneath the symptoms," recalling one patient who kept insisting that Jesus was inside him but who eventually made clear that he was articulating his religious belief that "God is in me."

"Sometimes it takes patience," Sister Sharon said. "It takes digging a little deeper."


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