St. Dymphna, patron of those experiencing mental illness
St. Dymphna, patron of those experiencing mental illness
A few years back during a televised basketball tournament, Ritz constantly ran an ad campaign for a snack that was unavailable to a particular puppet because, well, it was a puppet. Because of the puppet’s maniacal desire for the unattainable Ritz cracker, it was contained in a mental institution. One commercial highlighted that the only way to control the puppet was to strap it down. The ad campaign was meant to be funny; what it did was emphasize the stereotype of those suffering from mental illness.

May is Mental Awareness Month and May 15 is the feast day of St. Dymphna, patron of those experiencing mental illness. Outside of the world of puppets, one in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness. Just as physical illnesses fall on a long continuum of afflictions, from sinus infections to terminal cancer, mental illnesses vary in their severity.

“A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life” (National Alliance on Mental Illness [NAMI]).

We believe in the dignity of the human person; no individual is more equal than another. So, one must not be defined by the mental illness from which they suffer. For example, one suffers from bipolar disorder; one is not “bipolar.” Illnesses happen, but God does not make mistakes. “Each individual is truly a person …” and “all persons are equally noble in natural dignity” (Pope St. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, no. 9, no. 89).

A core principle of Catholic teaching is the preferential option for the poor and marginalized. A basic moral test for any society is how we treat the most vulnerable members. With mental illness on the rise,

how can we demonstrate a preferential option — show greater sensitivity — to those suffering from mental illness? There is not an easy and universal answer.

However, we can begin by educating ourselves on mental illness and our parish on how to be a welcoming, inclusive community. Every parish has members who experience a serious mental illness. When a parish truly welcomes them and fully appreciates their gifts, the parish is transformed and the whole church is slowly made into the inclusive and loving community it is called by Christ to be. The Office for People with Disabilities is a great resource to help you and your parish become transformative.

We also can advocate for an end to the stereotypes perpetuated by society in language and portrayed in our media and treat all persons with the dignity they deserve. “Whoever suffers from mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness in themselves, as does every human being. In addition, they always have the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also to be treated as such” (Pope St. John Paul II).

Life is messy and mental illness is difficult to deal with. It is just the place where the healing presence of Christ is most needed. Those who desire may benefit from contacting Catholic Charities Counseling Services, the Northwest Catholic Counseling Center, or your local chapter of NAMI. In the end, no one is a puppet; all deserve to be subject of love not the object to stereotype.

Cato is director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Portland. Father Libra, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, is director of pro-life activities in the archdiocese.