Mental Health: STOP the Stigma
Klerksdorp has become the second South African diocese after Johannesburg to embrace the mental health ministry as an integral part of its pastoral activities. This was made possible through the support of the Catholic Health Care Association of Southern Africa (Cathca) and the Catholic Mental Health Ministers in the United States.
Initially four parishes — St Peter’s, St Monica’s, Our Lady of Fatima and St Michael’s — are implementing the ministry. Bishop Victor Phalana of Klerksdorp and Cathca intend to extend the ministry to other parishes before the end of this year. Each of these parishes has a mental health ministry team coordinator.
Last year, the ministry was piloted at the Johannesburg parishes of All Saints in Ennerdale and Our Lady of Mercy in Emndeni.
“The government’s mental health policy provides a sound legal framework for upholding the right to mental health care, but its effective implementation remains a major challenge, especially in underprivileged areas,” said Cathca’s Dr Melese Shula, coordinator of the mental health ministry in Southern Africa.
“While specialised psychiatric care is by and large available at national referral hospitals, there are limited mental health services provided by lower levels of care, such as local clinics and community-driven projects. That has a negative impact on the country’s mental health wellbeing,” Dr Shula said.
“We have observed the evidence of a high prevalence of mental health conditions in the communities where the ministry is being implemented. The experience of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are common to the emotional life of many people there, and how they try to cope with these experiences is a great challenge. Also, the impact of severe mental illness is felt directly in some people’s lives, or indirectly through the suffering and struggles of a loved one.”
Dr Shula said that mental illness remains poorly understood, even among clergy and others in positions of influence. He said that many people with mental health problems do not seek help for their condition due to social stigma. In some communities there “is a belief that people with mental health conditions are bewitched, possessed, or sinners”, Dr Shula said.
“Furthermore, there is a limited access to support groups and mental health services for managing psychological distress, anxiety, depression, suicidal feelings, substance abuse, and more severe mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”
He noted that the mental health ministry has been neglected “by the pastoral agents due to the lack of understanding of what it constitutes and how to address the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness”.
Call to a Good Samaritan
At the beginning of this year, Cathca empowered the clergy and lay ministers of the four Klerksdorp parishes with “down-to-earth training to reach out to people with mental challenges”, Dr Shula explained.
“Mental health ministers are members of pastoral councils, affiliates to sodalities, catechetical coordinators, and parishioners with a desire to reach out to fellow members of the community. Their call is to be like the Good Samaritan, to accompany and journey with those who struggle with mental health illness. They live among those they serve, and they have a valuable role to play in enabling people with mild-to-moderate mental challenges — such as stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse — to be responsible for their own mental wellbeing, while referring those with more severe mental conditions, such as psychosis or bipolar disorder, to specialist services,” he said.
“Through this ministry, people with mental challenges associated with trauma, mental illness, ageing, socio-economic adversity, marginalisation, isolation, and other environmental or genetic factors, have been receiving assistance, and those with severe mental health conditions referred to the nearest service providers. This comprises youth, adults, and the elderly who live in underprivileged sections of the concerned parishes where unemployment, underemployment, and informal employment are rife.”
Published in the September 2023 issue of The Southern Cross Magazine
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