Mental illness. Few want to talk about it. To do so is uncomfortable, distressing. But these are conversations that need to take place. With mental illness on the rise throughout the U.S. and globally, mental health is a topic that needs to be discussed, and often.
One in five Americans face mental health issues every year. One in six youths between the ages of 6 and 17 are affected by mental health disorders. Fifty percent of lifelong mental illness begins by age 14; 75 percent by age 24. Shocking? The worst, however, is this: Suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34.
These statistics, taken from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, the leading organization in the field of mental health, were quoted by Dr. Susan Feathergill, a licensed psychologist at Feathergill and Associates in South Bend. Clearly, the mental health crisis is very real, but talking about it, learning how to help, and how to cope does not need to be a frightening discussion.
Feathergill has been practicing psychology for more than 20 years, and with her husband, Jeff, founded an independent practice. The couple provides seminarian psychological evaluations for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and teaches young priests basic counseling skills. Feathergill sees patients of all ages and backgrounds. Throughout the last couple of years, she has seen firsthand an intensification of the mental health crisis. “I’ve noticed that since COVID, there’s been a definite increase in anxiety and depression,” she confirmed. “I would say particularly after the pandemic it was a big spike.”
She attributes some of this to the natural fears people had of becoming ill or spreading the virus to vulnerable relatives, which sometimes led to extreme cases of isolation. “I have so many adults and teens who felt isolated from others, and they’ve been in their heads too much. When you’re in your head too much and you have all these automatic thoughts that are probably negative or even catastrophic, that’s going to lead you down the path of spiraling downward with depression or anxiety.”
Reintegrating into a communal society after a long period of separation brings numerous struggles and fears, fears sometimes escalated by ideals of perfection portrayed on social media and the Hollywood culture. This can be especially true for introverted people or those who already struggled with anxiety, Feathergill said. People are also beginning to seek help for traumatic occurrences in greater numbers – no matter what those experiences were or when they occurred.
As a Catholic psychologist, Feathergill spoke of the sad fact that in a nation where 70 percent of the population attends a faith community, “For so long there’s been a divide between faith life and mental health.”
A strong faith life is important, as “faith can help us with our sense of suffering and help us persevere through the hard times; the faith can help connect us with that community that cares.”
At her parish of St. Pius X in Granger, Msgr. William Schooler utilizes a voucher program to help parishioners receive the help they need in affordable ways, recommending them to organizations like Feathergill and Associates for more in-depth help than he as a priest can provide.
Mental issues like anxiety and depression can happen to anyone, and are not at all an indication of a weak faith life, she pointed out. Naturally, some Catholics prefer to speak to a professional who shares their faith, which Feathergill understands, though she admits that there is a difficulty in finding Catholic psychologists within the diocese.
So, how should Catholics respond to those with mental illness? “Treat them with care and compassion like you would as a good Christian, treating them the way you would want your neighbor to treat you,” Feathergill said simply. Listening is “one of the most important things.” Listen with an open heart, not by attempting to relate to the situation through one’s own experiences or trying to “fix it.”
Being aware of the signs of mental health is important, but Feathergill would concur that a person should not attempt to self-diagnose and never ignore a person who expresses suicidal thoughts. Instead, offer to help the person find the assistance they need, as some parishes and priests in the local area have begun to do.
“Children are resilient,” or so people say. Yet even the most resilient children would not be completely immune to the turmoil of the times. Parents may attempt to shelter their youngsters from the darkest aspects of the world, but these things will surely creep into their conscious minds in some way, affecting their daily lives in the same way as adults. School counselors are in a good position to observe this. In her 20th year as counselor at St. Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, Jodi Helmer testified to the changes in her students in the last couple of years.
“You can’t have a pandemic and people going through what they went through … and expect that everything was going to be ok,” she stressed.
St. Vincent de Paul School, she continued, has been blessed to have a school counselor on staff full-time for years even prior to her time there. She also spoke about the many other blessings of her school and other Catholic schools, particularly the diocesan support, the priests who serve the spiritual needs of the people, and of course the faith life built on Jesus Christ. Resources such as the rosary, adoration, and spending time in prayer at church are all aspects of mental health that public schools cannot provide.
At St. Vincent de Paul School, administrators put a solid re-entry plan into place to return to school after the months of quarantine, Helmer said, and with the increasingly relaxed policies this year, she senses a “lighter” atmosphere in the hallways and playgrounds. Unfortunately, though, the bigger issues are not going away anytime soon. Helmer stated, “I would say the biggest problem we are seeing still now is fallout.” Mental health professionals are overwhelmed with clients seeking their services, to the point that clinical aid cannot be obtained for anywhere from three months to a year in some cases, Helmer said. And that waiting can be costly for a person’s mental health. She can offer help, but not diagnoses or medications.
Helmer is fortunate to have the assistance of Katie Giant, now in her second year at the school. Together, they are able assist the children and also educate the teachers in methods of helping their young pupils within the classroom setting. Giant said that: “Everything that Jodi has incorporated and taught the teachers is very intentional.” Their goal as a team is to help children advocate for themselves, to learn how to calm themselves so they can remain in the classroom and have a positive learning experience, which is their purpose at the school.
There are silver linings to be found among the shadows, however. “I think the positive with COVID though, is that it brought awareness to mental health,” Giant added. Both Giant and Helmer agree that students are less reluctant to visit either of them now. And seeking help should never be seen in a negative light. Helmer remarked, “We all have stress, anxiety, mental health needs, no matter if you’re a child or an adult. And that isn’t something to be embarrassed of or afraid to seek.”
“Luckily we have Jesus as our role model that we can use here, that we can all go to Him anyways. That’s always been a piece here.”
Within the Northeast Indiana region, there are resources available to help those in need. Sometimes a priest may be able to refer a parishioner to a counselor, as Msgr. Schooler does at St. Pius X, and some parishes have seen the need to walk with those suffering from mental health crises through support groups such as St. Dymphna’s Refuge at St. Therese Parish in Fort Wayne.
Secular groups like NAMI also provide support, often encouraging people to develop their personal faith lives. Elkhart County has a NAMI affiliate and the Fort Wayne and St. Joseph County chapters serve much of the surrounding areas. For more information, visit www.NAMI.org. For those in more immediate need of care, mental health facilities serve both the Fort Wayne and South Bend areas. Counselors can also be reached by calling or texting the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 at any time of day or night.
Warning signs of mental illness
- Recent social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in activities
- Drop in functioning at school, work, extracurriculars, etc.
- Problems concentrating/speaking
- Loss of appetite/sleep
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Intense concern with appearance/lack of interest in appearance
- Overuse of alcohol/drugs
- Ailments with no obvious causes
- Thinking/speaking about suicide
- Hyperactive behavior/disobedience/aggression (in children)
- Temper tantrums (in children)
- Frequent nightmares (in children)
– NAMI website
“If anxiety is going on for six months, you should be referring to a professional. If depression has been going on for more than a couple weeks, you should
be referring.” — Dr. Susan Feathergill
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