PHOENIX – On Sept. 10, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix held its second annual Mass of Remembrance for People Who Died by Suicide. People holding white carnations filled the pews at Saints Simon and Jude Cathedral and vases of white carnations surrounded an altar of Mary. Organ music rang out as Bishop John Dolan began to lead the Mass.
Dolan, who has been bishop at the Diocese since Aug. 2, 2022, has a personal connection to the event. Three of his siblings died from suicide: his brother, when Dolan was in eighth grade, one of his sisters and her husband, when Dolan was in college in the 1980s, and another sister in October 2022.
For Dolan, being open about his ways of dealing with these deaths has led to more open conversations among parishioners.
“Once I opened that up and let people know that, ‘Hey, there’s a bishop out there, a leader within the faith community who is struggling,’ all of a sudden, everyone else seemed to say, ‘Hey, you know, I guess I could talk about this too.’”
Dolan is also a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, an organization founded in 2019 that educates clergy members on mental health and provides faith-based support to Catholics and their families living with mental illness. In December 2022, he opened the Phoenix Diocese’s own Office of Mental Health Ministry.
Though the office at the Diocese has been open for less than a year, Dolan has a vision for its future. Dolan wants the office to create “wells,” defined as places “where healing begins,” a reference to the Bible story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well.
For the Phoenix Diocese’s organization, this will mean 15 wells – one for each deanery, or area of parishes under the supervision of a dean. These wells would be areas for people, clergy and parishioners alike to gather to support those in their faith community affected by mental health concerns or mental illness. The goal is to have these 15 wells established by the end of this year.
The office, which is still in its infancy, according to Dolan, is focusing on state advocacy as well as education.
“We’re pretty behind the eight ball here in the state of Arizona on providing mental health counselors where there’s truly a lack of mental health counselors … available,” Dolan said.
“And then the cost is another issue. So we’re trying to figure out ways to be an advocate for better service and attainable service for people in our state. We haven’t focused specifically on demographics yet, we’re just trying to get to parishes and to clusters of parishes and to schools. And of course, to people on the streets.”
Deacon Ed Shoener at the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who co-founded the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers with Dolan, was also drawn to address mental health as a result of his personal experience. His daughter, Kathleen “Katie” Marie Shoener, died from suicide in August 2016, at age 29, after years of living with bipolar disorder.
“She died by suicide, but she’s not defined by having an illness or by her manner of death. She was a beautiful child of God who was loved by her family and her friends,” Shoener said.
“People shouldn’t be defined by their illness … we need to do better in treating mental illness and taking care of people.”
Shoener wrote a short obituary of his daughter that, in his own words, “went viral.” In the obituary, Shoener memorialized his daughter while indicating a need for greater understanding and compassion for those living with mental illness and for their family members. Shoener also founded the Katie Foundation after his daughter’s death.
“In Katie’s case,” Shoener wrote in her obituary, “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.”
“Apparently this short obituary spoke to the experiences of people that live with mental illness and those who support them,” Shoener said.
“Many of the responses and comments we got back were about the need for the church to be more involved in supporting people with mental illnesses.”
Shoener often gets asked about the Catholic Church’s history with suicide, when the church denied those who died by suicide the burial rites offered to other Catholics. He explains that the Catechism, or doctrine of the church, regarding suicide changed in the 1990s under Pope John Paul II.
“There’s three components of a mortal sin and the church used to, very harshly, view suicide as always a mortal sin. It’s got to be a grave matter, which suicide is a grave matter, but it’s got to be done … deliberately and with full consent to the will,” Shoener said.
“And what the church is basically now saying is with … suicide, quite often the full knowledge and full consent of the will is not there because of the mental health disorders, so the church now prays for people that die by suicide.”
In Phoenix, Maricela Campa is the program manager for the Office of Mental Health Ministry. With her personal experience of major depressive disorder, Campa pulls from her own therapy journey to assist others at the diocese.
The ministry is educating clergy using a mental health first-aid curriculum, and also educating parishioners on mental illness and mental health challenges.
“We developed a ‘Mental Health Minute’ and that’s a flock note that is sent out … that has a little bit of information with mental health and wellness, along with Scripture because it’s important for us to recognize mental health and faith,” Campa said.
In Pennsylvania, Amy Morgan has benefited from Catholic mental health ministry as well as secular support. After a history of violence and abuse committed by family, family friends and intimate partners, Morgan has been an active volunteer for the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and was recently made the education and support coordinator for northeast Pennsylvania.
Morgan considers herself a new Catholic. While she was in the process of joining the church, she reached out to Shoener after noting that people she had met in the church had advised her to avoid speaking about her previous marriages and her mental illnesses.
“I knew (Shoener) was very involved with mental health, things like that. So I wanted to get a deacon’s view,” said Morgan.
She asked the deacon if the Church would discourage her from talking about mental illness. “Because if this is how it’s going to be, I won’t join … I don’t want to be stigmatized. He said, ‘Absolutely not. This is not the church’s view, we need to change things.’”
Shoener then offered Morgan a place in a Catholic support group.
“The peace that I felt, going there and praying and seeing other people that were Catholic and going through the same thing I am … it gave me some solace,” she said.
“It was nice to hear, especially (as) someone who always struggled with faith.”
The Rev. Michael Reinhardt, an associate pastor at Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic Church at Lake Havasu City, has benefited from the educational training offered by the Diocese of Phoenix.
As a Grief Recovery Method specialist certified by the Grief Recovery Institute, a nonprofit organization founded in the 1980s, Reinhardt has experience assisting people struggling with mental health. According to Reinhardt, parishioners are more likely to place their trust in and share their experiences freely with Catholic Church clergy than with secular mental health professionals.
“It’s about what you represent and the role that you represent. And so there’s a lot of less necessary processes involved in breaking down walls when you meet people in that capacity. A lot of the trust … is just (there) from the get-go,” Reinhardt said.
“Oftentimes,” Reinhardt added, “nonclergy people share that … they have to build up to that point.”
For Reinhardt, the Diocese of Phoenix’s Office on Mental Health Ministry offered a pastoral care perspective that “anybody can be in the situation where they’re in need of a compassionate heart.”
“There’s still a great deal of shame associated with mental health (problems) and what we’re trying to do is diffuse that and to let people know that mental health is often a physical reality,” Dolan said.
“We can’t be ashamed of that any more than we could be ashamed of losing our hearing … or being ashamed of having to wear glasses.”