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Mental health crisis demands church’s integrated response, says Virginia bishop

A suicide prevention sign is pictured on a protective fence on the walkway of the George Washington Bridge in New York City Jan. 12, 2022. (OSV News photo/Mike Segar, Reuters)

(OSV News) — September is National Suicide Prevention Month and Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia — just a few miles from the nation’s capital — is urging mental health discussion and engagement, rather than avoidance and evasion.

“Who of us do not know someone — even in our own families or maybe ourselves — who are struggling with significant mental health issues,” Bishop Burbidge asked in the latest edition of his “Walk Humbly” podcast, “including anxiety and depression — and even, sadly, despair; loneliness for some.”

Statistics demonstrate Bishop Burbidge’s question is anything but rhetorical.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Of youth ages 13-18, one in five — either currently, or at some point during their life — have had a seriously debilitating mental illness. Additionally, about one in 25 U.S. adults live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.

In 2022, at least 49,449 Americans took their own lives. According to the CDC, suicide rates rose 37% between 2000-2018 and decreased 5% between 2018-2020. However, rates nearly returned to their peak in 2021.

“We know that certainly COVID had a great impact, not only on our young people, but on people of every age,” observed Bishop Burbidge. “And this world — with all of its challenges and pressures and demands — can be overwhelming.”

That reality requires an integrated response, said Bishop Burbidge.

“We recognize the whole person — we’re body; we’re soul; we’re spirit — and mental health is part of who we are,” Bishop Burbidge said. “And we know that people are struggling. So first of all, we want people to be able to acknowledge that; to talk about it.”

That hasn’t always been easy for those wrestling with mental health issues — or those who care about them — Bishop Burbidge acknowledged.

“Before, in a different culture — in a different time — it was almost something you didn’t raise,” he recalled. “But I think that for any healing ever to take place — in the life of an individual or even throughout the culture — there has to be the acknowledgement that this is real.”

Speaking pastorally to an almost-always sensitive issue, Bishop Burbidge reassured those hurting that “it’s nothing to be embarrassed about; it’s nothing to be ashamed about. It impacts us, just like physical ailments do.”

The Diocese of Arlington hosted a special Mass and conference Aug. 26 — “Beloved of God: Overcoming Stigma and Finding Community, A Day of Prayer for Mental Health” — dedicated to solidarity with those experiencing mental health challenges.

The event was designed for those affected by mental health conditions and their families as well as caregivers, mental health practitioners and the wider church community.

“This is a conference — there’s skills to learn; we have good speakers; there’s coping skills,” Bishop Burbidge shared Aug. 23. “There’s ways that we can progress, and deal with the situation, and help others.”

But most importantly, Bishop Burbidge said, it is meant to be a day of prayer.

“We know that the Lord heals us. He wants to relieve our anxiety; our distress. And he wants us to express our belief in his power to do so,” emphasized Bishop Burbidge. “And it’s also a reminder that we’re in this together. Everyone is part of this body of Christ, helping each other to move forward with a healthy, balanced, joyful life.”

The Arlington Diocese co-hosted the gathering with Divine Mercy University, a Catholic graduate school of counseling and psychology in Sterling, Virginia, and the Alexandria, Virginia-based St. Labre Community for Adults with Mental Health Conditions, which offers an alternative to secular mental health support groups.

“It’s a day of intellectual formation on this issue, but rooted in spiritual formation,” Bishop Burbidge explained, adding that, “ultimately, the one who heals is our Lord Jesus — who knows us; who knows us well, and wants to embrace us in his love.”

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Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.

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