Breaking down the stigma to overcome mental health challenges


As we enter into the new year, there are many people struggling with mental health challenges. So, let’s start with a few statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

– One in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental illness each year (this represents over 50 million people).
– The average delay between symptoms of mental illness and treatment is over 10 years.
– For those ages 10 to 34, suicide ranks as the No. 2 leading cause of death.
– More than half of Americans report that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health.
– The majority of mental health issues improve with treatment.

Stigma is the Roadblock to Recovery

We treat cancer, heart disease and other illnesses very differently than we treat mental illness. The stigma around mental illness continues to be a roadblock to recovery. We need to consider how we choose and use our words. For instance, the person with a mental health challenge has a mental illness, they are not mentally ill. Just like a person that has cancer or some other condition is not the disease. See the difference? Just like physical diseases, we need to treat those suffering with a mental health condition with compassion. If you or a loved one struggles with depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, psychosis, eating disorders or any other mental health challenge, you understand how difficult it is.

How is the Archdiocese of San Francisco addressing the stigma around mental illness?

Let me begin with the May 2018 pastoral letter “Hope and Healing” signed by the bishops of California (

“As pastors and bishops, we understand that mental health is a critical component of well-being. Therefore, ministering to those who suffer from mental illness is an essential part of the pastoral care of the Church. This letter represents a statement by Catholic pastors, in consultation with those who suffer from mental illness, their families and loved ones, health care practitioners and other caregivers.”

A key principle from that letter – “Christ calls us to attend to those who suffer from mental illness and provide hope and healing.”

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone states, “Christ calls us to attend to all those who suffer, including those suffering from mental illness. My brother bishops and I here in California have launched a mental illness awareness effort, calling attention to the fact that we are all called to provide hope and healing, and that we as a Church must accompany our brothers and sisters in their difficulties. We can help to bear their burdens by offering our understanding, prayers and tangible resources. No one should be isolated and left alone. We must meet people where they are – in our parishes.”

In early 2019, a mental health ministry initiative was begun by the University of San Diego’s Catholic Institute for Mental Health Ministry in conjunction with the Diocese of San Diego. San Diego, at that time, was leading the country with a model of building mental health ministry teams at the parish level. Five dioceses, including the Archdiocese of San Francisco, received grants to help jump-start the creation of ministries in their own respective locations. Four of us representing San Francisco and Oakland dioceses spent three days getting briefed and trained on how a ministry like this could be implemented locally. The model that the San Diego Diocese used has been leveraged and tailored to meet our needs in our archdiocese.

Clergy support and lay leadership are the keys to success

We started our journey by building awareness and commitment with some of the pastors throughout the archdiocese. Interested pastors allowed us to have parish recruitment workshops at their respective parishes. Following this lay minister recruitment, training for the parish teams began. However, COVID caused us to reassess and shift to online training for the initial parish teams.

Each parish team received customized training (five parts) over the course of a few weeks, approximately 10 hours in total. This began the formation and development of a broad network of Mental Health Ministry teams spanning all three counties in the Archdiocese. We currently have over a dozen parishes that have been fully trained and are in various stages of implementation. These teams meet every other month to listen and learn from each other. The keys to successfully building parish teams have been the support from the clergy and finding strong lay leadership within the parish. Below we have quotes from two of our parish team leaders.

Father Ben Rosado, team leader for St. Matthew’s in San Mateo: “Our Mental Health Ministry has had a positive impact on our parish community. We have had opportunities to walk with families and individuals who are going through difficult times. Our team has corresponded mostly through Zoom, listening to people’s stories and providing them with resources that can truly help them. Although we are not health care professionals, we can connect people with those who are. Our role is to offer support, encouragement, compassion and Christ’s presence. I have been exceedingly impressed with our team’s ability to do all of this for each person who has approached us.”

Jasmin Flores, team leader for All Souls in South San Francisco: “Since the inception in January 2021 of the Mental Health Ministry at All Souls Parish in South San Francisco, we have managed to heighten awareness of mental health challenges through the bulletin, a dedicated email address and cellphone number, word-of-mouth, engagement with other parish ministry leaders, monthly educational sessions and fundraising to develop our own working budget. While we are gratified with measurable traction, the stigma around mental health remains the single most remarkable barrier.”

Now that we have a Mental Health Ministry network set up and growing across the Archdiocese, we feel this is an excellent time to have a mental health conference focused on education and awareness of the importance of mental health, open to the general public. The conference called Hope & Healing will be sponsored by the Archdiocese on April 9 at Our Lady of Angels Parish in Burlingame. (Register at ■

If you have questions or are interested in starting a Mental Health Ministry team at your parish, please contact your pastor and/or Dick Collyer ([email protected]) for more information.

Richard Collyer is Project Manager of Mental Health Ministry
Department of Pastoral Ministry in the Archdiocese of San Francisco

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