When the staff at St. James Cathedral in Seattle debated hiring a parish nurse a few years ago, the proposal was rejected on practical grounds: The cathedral’s First Hill neighborhood is practically swarming with hospitals, so access to basic medical attention was not a particularly pressing issue. 

But, said parish administrator Larry Brouse, “What we do have is a significant incidence of mental illness that no one is addressing.” 

In a given year, 26 percent of adults in the United States — more than 60 million people — have some sort of mental disorder, with about 6 percent of all adults suffering from a seriously debilitating mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Over their lifetimes, 46 percent of U.S. adults will experience some mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. 

The proportion is likely even higher around St. James, whose weekday Cathedral Kitchen meal program draws up to 150 homeless and low-income people, many of whom have mental health issues. The neighborhood also has a large concentration of senior housing; according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 18 percent of those age 65 and older suffer from depression. 

A unique position? 

So, the cathedral turned its attention to starting a mental health ministry headed by a parish mental health nurse. 

“If a conventional parish nurse deals with issues of the body, the mental health nurse could deal with issues of the mind,” Brouse said. 

The cathedral found financial support for the ministry from local members of the Order of Malta, the 900-year-old lay religious order with a mission to defend the faith and assist the suffering, and from the Ferry Family Foundation. 

After months of planning, the St. James Cathedral/Order of Malta Mental Health Ministry was born. 

In February, the cathedral hired Beth Rose, a Catholic registered nurse with more than 20 years of experience working in hospitals, clinics, long-term care, hospice care and nursing management, as the parish mental health nurse and director of the new mental health ministry.  

In addition to her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing, Rose is working on an Master of Arts in applied theology at Marylhurst University in Portland, Ore. 

Her position is, as far as anyone at the cathedral can tell, unique. 

“There are no other parish mental health nurses in the world, it seems,” she said. “I’ve searched for them.” 

Ministry of listening 

Though the mental health ministry is still in its infancy, Rose already has several clients, mostly elderly people, whom she visits regularly in their homes. Clients are generally referred to Rose by other ministers at the cathedral. 

When it comes to mental health, the elderly need special attention, Rose said. “They’re living alone, they’re suffering from depression many times, but they’re not going to ask for help; they’re not going to tell anybody they’re having issues.” 

Rose also spends time chatting with the homeless people who congregate around the cathedral, sit in the pews during the day and frequent parish coffee hours on Sundays. 

As a nurse, Rose can’t make diagnoses or prescribe medications, but she can assess clients’ conditions to the best of her ability, do informal counseling and refer them to other resources for help. 

In practice, Rose’s ministry is “mostly listening,” she said. And if clients are open to it, she prays with them. 

Spiritual side 

“Some folks really only need someone to talk to,” she said. “They might be depressed and already on medication, so they’re being served that way, but they need that additional spiritual element.” 

As the ministry grows, the parish community will support the spiritual side of it “with prayers, with liturgies, with anointings and things like that,” Brouse said.  

Rose already has 17 volunteers for the ministry, including psychiatrists, social workers and other nurses. Once they’re trained, they’ll visit clients in pairs and make follow-up phone calls, both to make sure that clients are taking their medications and just to check in, “so they know somebody is out there and cares about them,” Rose said. 

Patty Heffernan, a registered nurse and 18-year St. James Cathedral parishioner, said her experience working near the cathedral inspired her to volunteer. 

“There’s such a great need for mental health assistance up here,” she said. “You see it every day down at the street corners or if you’re walking down to the bus, and it’s heartbreaking to see people in need without any kind of assistance available.” 

The ministry may eventually include prayer partners, support groups for those with mentally ill loved ones and journaling groups, Rose said. “The possibilities are rather endless.” 

Extending Jesus’ ministry 

An important aspect of the ministry will involve educating cathedral staff members, parishioners and the larger public about mental illness to help get rid of the stigma that often surrounds it. 

“I don’t think we’re as enlightened as we ought to be that mental illness is exactly that — it is an illness, it is a physical malady,” Brouse said. “It’s not that they’re crazy or that they’re bad or they’re touched or possessed by the devil. They are no different from someone that would have cancer or kidney disease.” 

And as Catholics, he added, “Just as we’re supposed to feed the hungry and house the homeless and clothe the naked, we’re to help the sick.” 

Those involved with the cathedral’s mental health ministry believe it could serve as a model for similar ministries at other cathedrals and parishes. 

The Order of Malta’s Western Association, U.S.A., considers the ministry “a proof-of-concept opportunity,” said member Boyd Sharp, who helped spearhead the effort to fund the ministry. “Right from the beginning, we felt we were addressing an issue that had much broader implications than just simply the cathedral here.” 

That’s very true, said Father Michael G. Ryan, the pastor of St. James Cathedral. 

“Every parish deals with issues of mental health one way or another,” he said. “I think this is very much a part of extending the healing ministry of Jesus. … To read the Gospels, it’s pretty clear that anyone who was in any kind of need of healing, Jesus was there for them — and I think the Church needs to be in the same way as much as we can.”

Kevin Birnbaum writes from Washington state.

St. Dymphna, Patroness of the Mentally Ill (sidebar)

The patron saint of the St. James Cathedral/Order of Malta Mental Health Ministry is St. Dymphna of Gheel, the patroness of people with mental illness. 

According to tradition, Dymphna was born in Ireland in the seventh century, the daughter of a pagan chieftain and a beautiful Christian mother, who baptized her. When Dymphna was 14, her mother died, and her distraught father sought to marry Dymphna because of her resemblance to his late wife. 

Horrified, Dymphna fled with her confessor to Belgium. But her father tracked her down and again pressured her to marry him. When Dymphna refused, her father ordered his servants to kill the priest, then beheaded his daughter himself. 

Since her body was discovered in the 13th century, St. Dymphna has been invoked as patroness against mental illness, and several miraculous cures have been attributed to her intercession. 

Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia