October 13, 2017

Special Mass comforts, unites those affected by mental illness

Kile Stevens, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville, leads the congregation in the responsorial psalm at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianapolis on Sept. 24 during a special Mass for those affected by mental illness. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Kile Stevens, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville, leads the congregation in the responsorial psalm at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianapolis on Sept. 24 during a special Mass for those affected by mental illness. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

“What if blessings come from raindrops?”

It’s a good question to ask when searching for goodness among trials.

It was a fitting question—asked through a song of the same name—at the beginning of the first-ever Archdiocesan Mass for Those Affected by Mental Illness held on Sept. 24 at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianapolis.

(Related: Resources for those affected by mental illness)

The Mass was a year-and-a-half in the making, and initiated by Kile Stevens of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville.

“Being someone who experiences mental illness, when I came into the Church I thought there was a need for this ministry because I knew how isolated I felt, and I knew there were probably others like me,” said Stevens, who was received into full the communion of the Church in April of 2014.

“I wanted some kind of ministry to work toward inclusion of others who have mental illness. The amount of misunderstanding people have when I try to explain my circumstances—it can be difficult, especially with the stigma. I needed to change that.”

Those affected by mental illness extend beyond those with a diagnosis, said Erin Jeffries, archdiocesan coordinator of special needs ministry, who was involved in the planning of the Mass from the start.

“We decided to call it a ‘Mass for Those Affected by Mental Illness’ [because] … there are many lives that are affected—family, friends, professionals who work supporting these individuals, to name a few. …

“We very much need to continue to raise awareness about mental illness. It needs to be talked about so that those who are affected can become more comfortable reaching out for the support they need.”

Scott Seibert, interim director of the archdiocesan Office of Pro-Life and Family Life, also helped in coordinating the newly established Mass that will be celebrated annually.

“Being a licensed clinical social worker myself, I have experienced firsthand the effects of mental illness on individuals, families and communities,” he said. “The stigma associated with mental illness is still present in society. It is no problem for people to speak openly about their battle with cancer or some other physical illness. However, individuals struggling with mental illness and their families feel trapped or judged if they mention their struggle.”

Father Michael Hoyt, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, was not afraid to mention the struggle his family experienced through his sister’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

“It can be so difficult to find the way forward—that brought me and my family to our knees on countless occasions,” he said in his homily.

His sister’s diagnosis is not his only exposure to mental illness. Father Hoyt, like Seibert, has a background in social work. More personally, he himself admitted during his homily to having past struggles with depression. It is through that experience that he identified three keys to helping move forward “through the darkness,” keys which he shared.

“The first step in any challenging situation ... is to come to recognize that we are powerless,” he said.

“This doesn’t mean that we don’t have boundaries or try to come up with strategic plans for making a better tomorrow possible. But first we surrender to the power that is so much higher than us—Jesus, who went through the horrors of rejection. Jesus, who was treated himself as a mad man. Jesus, who moved through death in such a way that brought about eternal life.”

Without surrender, Father Hoyt said, “We try to hold onto everything, to fix everything. People in our lives that have difficulty with mental illness are not problems that can be fixed. They have to be deeply loved.”

The next “vital” step, he said, is “to recognize that we are not alone, especially in those times when we think we are alone. There are a lot of people out there saying the same thing. We cannot go it alone. No man, no woman is an island.”

The third key, he continued, is looking for goodness.

“Often in my own life, I’ve been debilitated at times with depression. I finally discovered that goodness is all around: The sun in the morning is beautiful. The checkout clerk at [the] Speedway [gas station] smiled [at me]. There is so much goodness around waiting to be discovered.

“Even when it seemed like God had abandoned him, [Jesus] knew of his [Father’s] presence. And he knew his mother was there, and his beloved disciple. So, too, for us. We have eyes to see—identify the goodness. It’s there. It always is. God is constantly in one way or another communicating his unconditional love.”

After the Mass, Father Hoyt had advice for all Catholics in regard to mental illness.

“Some people still think ... that some people who suffer from depression or other things should just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make a decision that everything is OK,” he said.

“We need to be careful about using a word to identify a person by their illness. For example, saying that a person is bipolar, that is wrong. That is a human person with a condition, with bipolar [disorder].

“Or to use terms for people who suffer from psychotic disorders such as ‘crazy’ or ‘nutty,’ those are inadmissible words.”

Reducing the stigma of mental illness was a hope of Stevens when he approached the archdiocese about having a Mass for those affected by mental illness.

He also hoped such a Mass would help them “find comfort and healing through the Eucharist, through Jesus Christ and his precious body and blood [in] the Blessed Sacrament, and spiritual healing,” he said.

“This [Mass] was a chance to get to see others who are struggling with the same thing and find common ground in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

According to Phyllis Strauss, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese, Stevens’ hopes were accomplished.

“I thought it was such a compassionate act for the Church to do,” she said. “I was touched deeply. Just the thought of holding a special Mass for folks like me who have carried the cross of mental illness makes me cry.”

Strauss was diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia in her early 20s. Daily medication helps keep her condition under control, “but I have had terrible episodes,” she admitted.

“While keeping very, very close to the sacraments, I have found the Church to be a constant source of help, mercy and love,” she said. “I am so thankful for all the Church has done for me.” †

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