Deacon Ed Shoener, Diocese of Scranton

Scranton, Pennsylvania — My daughter Katie lived with a serious mental illness called bipolar disorder. She lived with this illness for over 11 years, but she finally lost the battle to suicide in 2016, at the age of 29. In her obituary I wrote this:

        “So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness. People say that she is bipolar”
        or “he is schizophrenic.” Over the coming days as you talk to people about this, please do not
        use that phrase. People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes.
        Katie was not bipolar – she had an illness called bipolar disorder – Katie herself was a beautiful child of God.

       “The way we talk about people and their illnesses affects the people themselves and how we
       treat the illness. In the case of mental illness there is so much fear, ignorance, and hurtful attitudes
       that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further. Our society does not provide
       the resources that are needed to adequately understand and treat mental illness. In Katie’s case,
       she had the best medical care available, she always took the cocktail of medicines that she was
       prescribed, and she did her best to be healthy and manage this illness – and yet – that was not enough.

      “Someday a cure will be found, but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those
      with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from cancer, heart disease
      or any other illness. Please know that Katie was a sweet, wonderful person that loved life, the
      people around her – and Jesus Christ.”

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          I had hoped Katie’s obituary would encourage an open and honest conversation in our small town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, about mental illness and suicide. What happened was totally unexpected. Her obituary went viral on social media. It was covered in the media around the world. Katie’s obituary was seen by millions of people. 

          Here are some of the headlines about Katie’s obituary:

          She ‘loved life:’ A grieving father wrote openly about suicide and mental illness in daughter’s obituary - The Washington Post

          From the United States comes a dramatic story and a very strong invitation to rethink our way of relating to those suffering from mental disorders – Urban Post, Italy

          This father used his daughter's obituary to make an important point about the way we treat people with mental health issues – The Independent, United Kingdom

          I am convinced that God used Katie’s obituary to deliver his message of love. God overcame Katie’s tragic death by using her obituary to help people understand that he is with them in their struggle with mental illness and he has mercy on those who die by suicide.

          From time to time I visit Katie’s grave to grieve. But I know I will not find Katie at her grave. The Word of God overcomes Katie’s death, and all death, and transforms it to new life. We can overcome the death of a loved one by taking what they loved and bringing that love into the world; we take their suffering and transform it into loving service to those who suffer with what they suffered.

          I now bring Katie’s joyfulness and exuberance into the world by transforming her suffering into service to those who suffer from mental illness. That was my inspiration for joining with other dedicated people to establish the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers (ACMHM) in 2018.

          The ACMHM supports parishes and dioceses in establishing mental health ministries that provide vital spiritual accompaniment for people experiencing mental illness, as well as those who care for them. We provide grants to start ministries, offer online training programs and many other practical resources. 

          The ACMHM is motivated by the prayer offered by Pope Francis on World Mental Health Day on October 10, 2021, “to remember our brothers and sisters affected by mental disorders and the victims, often young, of suicide. Let us pray for them and for their families, so that they are not left alone or discriminated against but welcomed and supported."

Editor's note: A video of Pope Francis sharing his prayer in intention for the month of November for those who suffer from depression is offered as the video of the the week in the Nov. 10, 2021 edition of the Diocese of EriE-news.

Photo/Vatican News