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Early intervention is key to mental illness treatment

Church community’s role in providing support cited as important

As the Body of Christ, the Catholic community is called to accompany people living with mental illness. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Seeking help early is key to preventing extreme trauma, including suicide, said Gary Behrman, an assistant adjunct professor at Saint Louis University and licensed clinical social worker with a counseling practice in Kirkwood. The stigma attached to seeking help — whether for family, social or religious reasons — can thwart an opportunity for the behavioral health community to deal with the depression and anxiety and prevent a traumatic event, Behrman said.

Tom Duff, executive director of Saint Louis Counseling, agreed that early intervention is a key factor to success. “When you recognize that there is a change in your patterns of behavior, your interactions and your emotional health, then it’s time to talk with someone” such as a family member, trusted loved one or a counselor, Duff said.

Deacon Jim Murphey of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in St. Louis, who along with his wife leads a mental illness family support group sponsored by Karla Smith Behavioral Health, advises family members to keep praying, let go of the guilt and realize they don’t have control over the situation. He adds that no situation is hopeless, and it is possible to find happiness and peace.

Sometimes, Behrman said, he sees clients who’ve only sought help late, after they’ve dropped out of college, after a divorce or job loss and then “painfully the trauma of suicide” follows.

Health care professionals, counselors and social workers have a better opportunity to be effective with early detection and early intervention of mental illness, he said, comparing it to early detection of heart disease or cancer.

If mental illness is not addressed in the early stages, “it can be quite traumatic for the families with multiple disruptions, hospitalizations, unemployment and significant conflict within the family,” he said. “A multitude of stressors increase as the mental illness worsens.”

Behrman’s research and publications cite trauma recovery and the role of spirituality and faith enhancing recovery. He will address that in a presentation on “Resilience: the Ability to Bounce Forward” at the conference on “When Mental Illness Hits Home” Friday, Aug. 23, at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill. And he recently presented at a workshop on early detection and suicide at Mercy Retreat Center in St. Louis for priests, religious, directors of religious education and people who do chaplaincy work.

Faith, he said, can be a powerful asset in enhancing recovery, but sometimes people may not seek help because they think or were told they lack faith or just need to pray more.

“Those living with a mental illness should never bear these burdens alone, nor should their families who struggle heroically to assist their loved ones. We Christians must encounter them, accompany them, comfort them and help bear their burdens in solidarity with them — offering our understanding, prayers, and tangible and ongoing assistance.”

“Hope and Healing,” A pastoral letter from the bishops of California on caring for those who suffer from mental illness, May 1, 2018
Jesus constantly reached out to people who were in need of healing, Behrman said, and that same healing grace is available today. “Communities of faith need to be sensitive to the fact that they are instruments of that same grace that Jesus dispensed in His ministry,” he said.

Duff said spirituality is “a huge component of overall health,” but if someone is praying to feel better and doesn’t improve, “maybe that’s a sign to say it’s OK to seek out help, it’s OK to not feel shame in going to someone else and expressing concerns.”

Prayer can lead to counseling “and help you feel better about yourself overall,” he said.

Behrman became interested in trauma recovery and mental health after working in a hospital cancer and leukemia unit, later attending a doctorate program in New York City, the first semester of which he spent at Ground Zero counseling survivors of 9/11. He said that news of the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, causes some people to relive trauma, which becomes more intense and difficult to manage.

Behrman said that by only focusing on mental illness as the sole cause of the shooting tragedies, it reinforces the prejudice that persons with mental illness are dangerous. A very small percentage are dangerous, he said.


WHAT: “When Mental Illness Hits Home Conference” with a theme of “Resiliency: Bouncing Forward” focusing on recovery following trauma. The event is designed to help anyone journeying with people with mental illness such as families, friends and professionals. The keynote speaker will be Gary Behrman, who specializes in treating anxiety disorders and depression.

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23

WHERE: The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill.

DETAILS: Cost is $40, which includes lunch. Register at www.bit.ly/2LjGmiM. For more information, email [email protected]

Mental Illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines (as defined by Mental Health America).

The stigma attached to mental illness forces many to hide the severity of their symptoms or those of a loved one. Many stop coming to church due to the stigma. Stigma is the single greatest barrier to people getting effective treatment. Leaders of a parish, diocese or other Catholic organizations can fight stigma by learning the signs of mental illness and reaching out to those living with the illness.

People can and do recover from mental illness. Recovery is the ability to live a fulfilling and productive life, to be a member of a community despite the continuing challenges of living with mental illness. Recovery can be thought of as a table with four legs. All four legs must be whole, strong and firmly attached for recovery to take hold.

Source: National Catholic Partnership on Disability

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