Making Mental Health a Priority

November 11, 2020

Making Mental Health a Priority

Reflecting on the Social Justice Statement of the Australian Bishops

By Fr Patrick O'Shea - Lower Hutt

I was very pleased to see that in their Justice Statement for 2020/21 entitled “To live Life to the Full” the Australian Catholic Bishops issued a call to make mental health a priority.  They provide a good analysis of the factors that affect people’s mental health including social, economic, cultural, and spiritual influences as well as the wider issues facing the world like climate change and the global pandemic. They look at its effects on a wide range of people and pay particular attention to vulnerable groups like the young, the elderly,  families, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,  the homeless, those in prison, and on refugees and migrants.  In looking at the situation of First Nations peoples they include this quote from a document called Statement from the Heart issued after a meeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Uluru in 2017 that gives a special insights into factors affecting their mental health. 

  • Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people.
  • Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them.
  • And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

          These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural                        nature of our problem.

In their statement the Bishops focused on how people who suffer from mental illness are often avoided, excluded, and dismissed. This is largely because of the stigma attached to it and its negative stereotyping of people. The contrast with the ministry of Jesus is stark. It was his practice to reach out to people or make it easy for people to reach out to him, included them, and took them seriously. We can only wonder how much a factor this was in his healing. People generally avoided, excluded, and dismissed felt recognised, included, and accepted when with him. He not only healed bodies and minds but enabled people to be reconnected with their families and communities. Through Jesus they felt a compassionate God identifying with them.

I recalled a story told by Sr Evelyn Woodward during a retreat she gave many years ago. A member of her congregation was hospitalised due to mental illness. She was not doing well.  She kept her distance from the other patients and emphasised the difference between them constantly saying to her visitors “I am not like them”. Her friends noticed a change for the better that coincided with a shift from an emphasis on distance and difference to one of identifying with other patients – using we rather than them as her term of reference.

I have also found myself pondering another part of the statement where the bishops say:

“If we seek only to cure rather than to accompany people experiencing mental ill health, we will be of no help to people seeking meaning in their experience.”

 It reminded me of one of the sayings of an Irish priest named Tom Hamill. Speaking to young people in Teach Brid, the youth centre for the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin he dropped this thought-provoking quote: “answers are stones, questions are babies”.  Faced with all the challenges of life we can be focused on an answer, a cure, a magic bullet that will put an end to suffering once and for all.

But the complex nature of mental illness and of the factors involved do not lend themselves to simple solutions. The path to healing is a complex journey with many stages. Along the way we keep encountering situations and events that impact mental health.  There are things that can help - like medication in particular circumstances. The bishops highlight the need for people to make sense of their experience and for someone to accompany them as they can continue to grow in and through the experiences that happen to them.

Though this statement is addressed to the Australian reality there is much that could also apply here in New Zealand. 



1737, Need to talk? – Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354 – 0800 111 757 or text 4202

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) – 0800 376 633, free text 234, email – 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7 – Web chat, email chat or free text 5626

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825.