By Robin Gomes
The Catholic Church in Australia is calling on society to take mental illness seriously, saying it affects all “right across the board.” “There is no section of society which is not touched by mental health problems.” Church institutions, especially parishes, can help reach out to those suffering mental strain.
Auxiliary Bishop Terence Brady of Sydney made the point while speaking to Vatican News ahead of Social Justice Sunday, which the Church in Australia is marking on Sunday.
In the lead-up to the August 30 observance, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ACBC) released a 19-page Social Justice Statement 2020-21, examining the extent, gravity and causes of mental ill-health in Australian society and urging action to address them. Entitled, “To Live Life to the Full: Mental health in Australia today”, the statement calls on faith communities, governments and individuals to make mental health a priority.
Bishop Brady, who is Bishop Delegate for the Australian bishops’ Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service, said the Covid-19 pandemic “has certainly accelerated mental ill-health but in Australian society, and probably in most other western societies, mental illness is a huge problem”.
While welcoming the deinstitutionalisation of mental health care in Australia, the country’s bishops say that without adequate funding of community health services, many disadvantaged groups fall through the safety nets. Factors such as poverty, living conditions and personal security contribute to mental ill-health.
Even though the problem is “really right across society”, Bishop Brady said, it is serious “particularly in certain groupings”. It certainly is a “major issue among the indigenous people and among asylum seekers and refugees”, many of whom, he lamented, “have been living mostly in detention for even up to a decade”.
There are also the homeless and street people and those in low-income groups who are affected. “You can find huge pockets of mental ill-health” even among what Bishop Grady described as the “upper echelons of society” or well-to-do people. As a young priest, he remembered hearing on the radio that an upscale area of Sydney had the highest rate of abuse in the family.
While visiting homeless shelters and prisons, Bishop Brady said, “you see so many signs of mental illness”. “Many of the homeless shelters and prisons could really be almost branded as psychiatric centres”.
He lamented a tendency to sweep this grave and pervasive problem under the carpet. “In many of the western society, mental health has been a problem for generations and it will continue to be so unless we address it”, he warned. But, he said, the good news is that we know so much about this problem that we can change it if we really want to. Of course, resources are needed for that.
Church’s network, especially the parish
It is here that the Church of Australia can make a difference, in caring for those affected by mental illness, Bishop Brady said. Through its vast education system, with universities, colleges, schools and also hospitals, he said, the Church can help “connect with people and help them”.
Above all, parishes can bring a wonderful change, and reach out to those with mental illness. “If you’ve got a good, strong parish life with good infrastructure, a lot of mental health care, of how we help and support people, can take place within the parish community,” Bishop Brady said. This is why the “Church in Australia is strengthening the local parishes because a whole lot of things can be done through it, but especially in the area of mental health”.
Church needs to regain its credibility
Bishop Brady said that the Church in Australia is also “putting a little bit more pressure on the political leaders to take mental health much more seriously than they have been.” However, “in many ways, in many parts of Australian society, the Catholic Church has lost its voice”, because of the child sexual abuse crisis, among other things.
The Church, he said, needs to regain its confidence and credibility, in order to be able to speak out for those in difficulty and those on the margins of society. It needs to pressure the political leaders and those who govern to draw their attention to mental health as well as to other areas.