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Capitol Correspondent - Nebraska bishops issue behavioral health statement

Nebraska bishops issue behavioral health statement

By Jim Cunningham
Capitol Correspondent

Upholding and respecting the inherent dignity of those who suffer from mental illness and other behavioral health problems is the foundational theme of a pastoral statement jointly issued this week by Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss of Omaha, Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln and Bishop William J. Dendinger of Grand Island.

The 2,200-word statement, entitled "Affirming the Dignity of the Mentally Ill," received final approval at a Jan. 26 meeting of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

The statement is a means by which the bishops share their reflections and perspectives as teachers and pastors "in order to encourage those who are struggling with these burdens in any way and to educate the diverse Catholic community on the importance of looking upon our afflicted brothers and sisters with compassion and care."

Several months in preparation, the statement was coordinated through the Catholic Conference. Prior to his retirement, and death soon thereafter, Bishop Lawrence J. McNamara of Grand Island also provided significant input and encouragement for the project.

Impetus for the pastoral statement came from three general sources. One was an address that Pope John Paul II delivered to an international conference on mental illness sponsored by the Holy See in 1996. In that address, the Pope emphasized everyone's duty to make an active response towards those who are victims of mental illness, by carrying out a "particularly attentive attitude" and "relations of true Christian charity."

Another source of impetus was the extent to which Nebraskans are affected by behavioral health problem – more than 100,000 citizens of all ages and walks of life. And the third source was the opportunity created by the current situation in Nebraska, in and through which major reforms of the state's behavioral health system are being implemented.

The focus of the bishops' concern is not limited to those diagnosed as mentally ill. It also extends to a broader understanding of behavioral health problems, namely, those who suffer from substance abuse disorders and other addiction problems.

The bishops acknowledge, with regret, that behavioral health problems are often stereotyped and stigmatized. In response, they write: "Each of us, as individuals, citizens, relatives and neighbors, and certainly as believers in Christ's message, should sincerely reflect upon our own attitudes towards those who are afflicted by any form of mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders or other addictions.

"Rather than contributing to any sense of shame and stigma, we can, instead, work to erase it. We can reach out in compassion to help those so afflicted overcome these barriers, which hinder them in seeking their own well-being."

Regarding the ongoing process of reforming Nebraska's behavioral health system, the bishops express their gratitude, encouragement and best wishes to all those who are involved in these efforts. More specifically, the bishops endorse and encourage the increased emphasis on community-based behavioral health services, an approach seeking to make it more possible for those in need to be served in their home communities.

The bishops point out that this approach is consistent with important themes of Catholic social teaching, "most notably subsidiarity and the call for solidarity."

While acknowledging that additional challenges await the reform efforts, including troublesome funding issues and the need for sustained communication and cooperation, the bishops emphasize that the shifts in policy and approach will create community-based opportunities. They encourage Catholic Nebraskans to respond, to put their faith into action as part of the anticipated social transformation:

"As new approaches are implemented, there will be opportunities to know more; to understand better; to overcome fears, discomforts and prejudices; to reject stereotypes; to reach out to those who are burdened by their illness rather than to ignore or demean them; to be a friend; to be a neighbor.," the bishops write.

"Community-based services can have great success when those who constitute the communities respond, without fear or prejudice, in service, charity and hospitality. We believe that Christian service, Christian charity and Christian witness must flow into these opportunities."

The full text of "Affirming the Dignity of the Mentally Ill" is now available on the web sites of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, www.nebcathcon.org; the Archdiocese of Omaha, www.archomaha.com; and The Catholic Voice, www.tcvomaha.com.

Copies also can be obtained by contacting the Conference office: 215 Centennial Mall South; Room 410; Lincoln, NE 68508; (402) 477-7517; nebrcc@alltel.net.

A booklet version is being prepared and will be distributed to all parishes in the state, as well as to church organizations and interested individuals and groups.

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