May is Mental Health Awareness Month

“Following a 2023 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops initiative,
Catholics across the country have been working in their local communities
to address the mental health crisis.”

CNA response to mental health crisis

In an episode of his Word on Fire Podcast, released on Feb. 19, 2024, with the title “Understanding the Mental Health Crisis,” Bishop Robert Barron recalls his experience of making a presentation at the November 2023 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Bishop Barron is the chairperson of the “Laity, Marriage, Youth and Family Life” Committee of the USCCB. He describes the work done by the committee, leading up to the Novem­ber meeting, how they had identified the pastoral needs of those struggling with mental health issues and the sense, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, that the “Mental Health Crisis” seems to be getting worse. Bishop Barron said he expected the presentation (given by him and Archbishop Gudziak, the co-chair of the committee), followed by questions and answers, “to take about five minutes.” He goes on to say, “We were there for an hour” and “I think it is fair to say that it was the most energy that the bishops showed during that whole meeting.” He describes the bishops making comments, “getting up to the microphone, one after another,” sharing their experiences, the challenges that they are facing, and how they are trying to help those who are struggling and suffering with mental health concerns. The full episode can be found here.

Personally, I remember very vividly the presentation made by Bishop Barron and Archbishop Gudziak ­— and the responses and participation of the many other bishops making comments and participating in the discussion. As I returned from that meeting last November, I was hoping that we would be able to do something to engage Mental Health Professionals locally to see how our diocese might cooperate or collaborate in offering information, resources and care to those who are struggling with their mental health. While I had some conversations about this during the past few months, I have been reminded of the need and initiatives in recent weeks, as I have been hearing that May is “Mental Health Awareness Month.” 

In preparing to write this column, I reached out to Dustin Riccio, MD, MBA, the (new) president and CEO of St. Joseph’s Health and Sister Pat Mennor, S.C., vice president for Mission at St. Joseph’s Health to let them know about the USCCB initiative and to ask for their assistance. In my almost four years as bishop, I have learned the history of St. Joseph’s Hospital and St. Joseph’s Health and I have seen what a blessing they are for our diocese, the city of Paterson and, the surrounding communities, and especially for our “underserved” communities in need of quality health care. In addition to an enthusiastic commitment to continue the conversation about how we may work together to meet the challenges of the growing mental health crisis, President Riccio and Sister Pat shared with me an extensive list of behavioral health resources offered by St. Joseph’s Health (included at the end of this column). They also shared an additional, good resource in Passaic County, The Mental Health Association of Passaic County. 

The article I quote at the beginning of this column is from Catholic News Agency. The article describes some of the efforts and outreach of Churches and dioceses across the United States, as well as in other parts of the world, stating: 

Ministering to people who suffer with mental illness and those who live and care for them spans not just the U.S. but also places like the Vatican, South Africa, and India. The India chapter of the Catholic Association of Mental Health Ministers (CMHM) organized its first-ever National Mental Health conference at Nirjhari Conference Center, Carmelaram in Bengaluru, Karnataka, from April 5–6.

As important and helpful as programs and collaboration can be, sometimes a “personal witness” can be the “key” to encouraging those in need of help to have the courage to “take a first step” or admit that they are hurting or in need of assistance. The bishop of Lincoln Nebraska is sharing his personal story in a very public way. In another story from Catholic News Agency, we learn that, “After seven years of heading the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, Bishop James Conley found himself ‘buckling’ under all of his duties and experiencing severe anxiety, insomnia, and depression.”

The article goes on to say that, on May 17, Bishop Conley released a Pastoral Letter, entitled, A Future with Hope, A pastoral letter on Mental Health. I strongly encourage readers to go to the website of the Diocese of Lincoln. On the website, you will find the Pastoral Letter and many other helpful articles and resources. There is also a YouTube video of an interview with Bishop Conley in which he describes his experience of needing to take a leave of absence from his ministry in order to get help for his own mental health struggles. 

To offer an idea of the powerful witness and testimony of hope that Bishop Conley offers in the Pastoral Letter, I will quote here the first paragraph of the letter: 

Our world is experiencing a mental health crisis. Anxiety and depression weigh heavily on the lives of many people – often those people are youth and young adults.  There is hope, though. I speak from experience. I have been on my own mental health journey that has taken me to the depths of darkness and then back to a life in which I once again experience joy and an even deeper love for our Lord. In this pastoral letter, A Future with Hope, I share my story, some practical advice, and a Catholic context for mental health to encourage you on your own unique journey to wholeness and holiness.

I look forward to working not only with the healthcare professionals at St. Joseph’s Health but also those in other parts of Passaic County as well as those in Morris and Sussex Counties. In his testimony, Bishop Conley speaks about the importance of prayer and the sacraments and the intercession of the saints. He mentions some saints who struggled with mental illness, but he also says that mental illness is not something that we can simply “pray our way through.” We need to be open to the help offered by medical professionals (and medication), through whom and which God can work to give us healing. I encourage anyone who may be struggling or who has a family or loved one suffering from mental illness to “reach out” to those who can offer resources, while also reaching out for God’s help in prayer.

In the midst of this mental health crisis, there is a growing devotion to St. Dymphna, who is described (on the Hallow App) as, “… a powerful intercessor for those who are struggling with mental health challenges. She is known for her bravery and devotion to God, and has the power to heal those who are suffering from mental illness.” [See link below this column.] 

Especially in this Month of May, dedicated to our Blessed Mother and Mental Health Awareness, let us ask the intercession of our Blessed Mother, of St. Joseph, and St. Dympha, praying for all who are in need of healing and all who care for the sick. 

The National Council for Mental Wellbeing

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a national observance started in 1949 by Mental Health America to bring attention to the importance of mental wellbeing. Across the country, individuals and organizations step up to raise awareness of and help address the challenges faced by people living with mental health conditions. 



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