The USCCB has now issued an official statement on responding to the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut.  The full text is available on their website.  The statement calls for three basic responses.  It asks for regulation of firearms, for standards which would limit violence in the entertainment industry, for consideration of our treatment of those with mental health issues.  Finally, it turns our attention to the 2000 USCCB statement Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.   They close today’s statement by reissuing five specific requests from that document to legislators, including the last, which is that they “[m]ake a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.”

I have already seen this last line quoted as though it is the bishops’ key response to those with mental health issues in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.  It is not, and it is crucial to remember that it is not.  This is a line made more in response to crime in general than to the particular crime that occurred last week.

The bishops’ comments on mental illness are much more extensive than this single recycled line.  They say the following:

We must also reflect on our own fears as we grapple with our prejudices toward those with mental health needs. Our society must provide health services and support to those who have mental illnesses and to their families and caregivers. As a community we need to support one another so no one feels unable to get help for a mentally ill family member or neighbor in need. Burdensome healthcare policies must be adjusted so people can get help for themselves or others in need. Just as we properly reach out to those with physical challenges we need to approach mental health concerns with equal sensitivity. There is no shame in seeking help for oneself or others; the only shame is in refusing to provide care and support.

This response seems to me to include exactly the right components.  We must attend to our collective fears and prejudices against those affected by mental illnesses.  We must assure that they have the health, social, and support services that they need.  But that alone is not enough.  The stigma that is associated with mental illness in our society prevents many, many people from getting the care that they need and from helping their loved ones get the care that they need.

Michael Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is likewise calling for our elected officials “to make the availability of screening, early intervention, treatment, services and supports a national priority.”  He adds,

Family education and support must also be part of mental health care. Too many families don’t fully understand the nature of mental illness, what to do if they are concerned about a child and how to cope.

The Catholic bishops and the leader of the premier advocacy organization for those with mental illness are articulating the same cluster of concerns: we need to assure the key services, but we also need to fight the shame and stigma that makes it so difficult for the families most in need of those services to access them.

It is too easy, in the wake of a tragedy like the shootings at Newtown, to fear persons living with mental illnesses.  But a quick look at a NAMI fact sheet yields a lot of information about the extent of mental illness among us.  One in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in any given year.  One in seventeen lives with a serious, chronic mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disease.  One in ten children in the US lives with either a serious mental or emotional disorder.  (See the link to the fact sheet above and its footnotes for more information on those numbers.)  All around us, our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our parents, our partners, our neighbors, our co-workers, and our friends are living with these illnesses.

Our bishops have asked that we put mental health on our agenda in the wake of Newtown.  It seems to me that we need to be asking ourselves two basic questions in order to do this well.  First, how might we as churches better assist families and individuals struggling with mental health issues to seek the care they need?  And second, how might churches better partner with organizations like NAMI to shape an ongoing national conversation to advocate for the needs of those with mental health issues and to create a culture where there is no shame or stigma to needing mental health care?