TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: World Mental Health Day

On Saturday 10th October, World Mental Health Day was observed. Its objective is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilise efforts in support of mental health.

The Mental Health Australia website states:

People with a mental illness can be among the most disadvantaged in society, and many confront barriers as a direct result of their illness. Cognitive and communication impairments may pose challenges, while stigma and discriminatory attitudes can be worse than the illness itself.

Discrimination and stigma can create barriers to recovery for people with mental illness including access to housing, employment and insurance and people often report that fear of stigma and discrimination is a key reason for not seeking help early.

Changing perceptions about mental illness can go a long way towards breaking down some of the barriers that stigma and discrimination creates.

One in five Australians will experience a mental illness in the next 12 months, almost 50% of us in our lifetimes.

Australia currently has a mental health system that is fragmented and difficult to navigate. The Australian Government has indicated it will launch a substantial mental health reform package before the end of 2015.

Just over a week ago our Bishop Bill Wright and the Anglican Bishop, Greg Thompson, sat with some fifty people, in an open dialogue on ‘Health and Wholeness’. During their conversation, they discussed the notion of health being more than a healthy body.  It can appear that there is an ideal around being healthy, and those who are less than ‘perfect’ are diminished. This is certainly true for those who experience concerns with their mental health. The conversation moved from the health and wellbeing of individuals to the importance of wellbeing around connectedness, engagement and community. It appears that as we drift away from communal life in our western world, with its associated sense of lack of belonging, our health and wellbeing are being diminished, with health being compartmentalised to institutions. Medical practices and hospitals may heal the body, but health and wellbeing is more than a bodily cure.

Our churches are present in the neighbourhood and wider community. With major issues in mental health, ageing and medical interventions, there are many who struggle with their sense of wellbeing and the uncertainty they face. The art of healing requires accompaniment, and this brings me to speak of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

On Saturday, 10th October, I was invited to attend the diocesan St Vincent de Paul Damascus Day and to do two short presentations. The theme chosen for this year’s Damascus Day was around Social Justice. The Society has produced a Social Justice Statement which outlines three priorities:

  1. Affordable Housing and Homelessness
  3. Energy Affordability and Cost of Living Pressures; and
  5. Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Their Statement offers practical solutions to affect change in each of these areas and invites its members, volunteers, and the general public to speak up for justice s to create a fairer society.

During the first part of the day, the presenters and participants broke open the Society’s framework for their vision and mission in action, consisting of three steps:

First Step – Immediate Assistance: response with financial assistance to people’s immediate need.

Second Step – Hand Up: begins by building trusting relationships with people who are assisted so as to discover the possible real causes of their disadvantage. From this place it may be possible to build networks and connect people with relevant supports. The hope is to break the cycle of disadvantage.

Third Step – Raising our Voice for Social Justice: bringing people’s stories and issues to appropriate authorities and decision makers. It is hoped this advocacy will bring about the change to systems which impact on the disadvantage being experienced.

The hoped-for outcome is a transformation in the lives of those who are assisted by the members of St Vincent de Paul Society. I sat with about seventy people from a number of Conferences from around our diocese. These generous volunteers engaged with the challenge of not only responding to the immediate requests for assistance, but also the call to give, to those they serve, a ‘hand up’, and the possibility of addressing the system issues which they see as keeping the people disadvantaged.

Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013) says:

The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills… (202)

Sunday’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (10:17-20) invites us to go and sell everything we own and follow Jesus. The reading from Hebrews (4:12-13) says it all:

The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotion and thoughts. No created thing can hide from him; everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give an account of ourselves.

Our readings remind us that our primary attachment is to Jesus and that material attachments are secondary, particularly in a society in which we are told that happiness is dependent on having more. The members of the St Vincent de Paul Society seem to understand that in serving the poor, they are evangelised, because they meet Christ in those they meet. Once again in the words of Pope Francis from Evangelii Gaudium:

I want a Church which is poor and for the poor…..We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them (198)

So it seems to me that both Bishop Greg and Bill, in sharing their conversation with us, indicated that our wholeness and wellbeing is community-based, and the work of our Vincentians enhances the health and wellbeing of individuals and also of the community. Of course, the effects are limited because there are not enough people participating in this ministry. If you are able, I would like you to consider exploring the work of your local St Vincent de Paul Conference. In the words of Frederic Ozanam:

You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis: You must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty, with the aim of a long term improvement.

While most of today’s Vincentians are older citizens, Frederic Ozanam was a university student when he began this movement in 1833 at the age of 20.  May the Word of God pierce the heart of our young people so they can discern, as Frederic did, the thoughts and intentions of their hearts which are for service and not for self.

Please consider the invitation to attend the launch of our celebrating 150 years as a diocese by attending the cocktail evening on November 6. I will write more on this next week but we were hoping to have 500 people gather for this ‘party’ or celebration. See if you can get a group of people from your school or parish to attend with you. I understand that our Irish entertainer, Fr Liam Lawton, is excellent! We will also have some local talent entertaining us.

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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