Charity, faith and mental health: What’s the connection?

By Lisa Turner, LMFT
Special to The Witness

This is the first in a five-part series connecting the work of Catholic Charities, charity and faith, and the mental health struggles experienced by the populations we serve. Each month will focus on a different Catholic Charities program: Immigration Legal Services, Affordable Housing, Jail & Prison Ministry, and Disaster Services. This first article will focus on the work of Catholic Charities and charity as an expression of faith.

Pope Francis has said that “a church without charity does not exist,” and this charity does not exist only in times of crisis or emergency. Charity is a way of life, a way of caring for people, helping them to grow and develop as children of God. This charity is compelled by a faith that is hoped for but unseen, and that helps us to persevere through hardships of all kinds, including mental health, in the belief that God is alongside us as a helpmate. The work of Catholic Charities is guided by the concept that charity is an expression of faith in Christ, and the works of faith are an expression of a deep sense of charity.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque was founded in 1931 as a nonprofit social service organization serving the Archdiocese of Dubuque.  Since then, the organization has been continuously evolving to respond to the ever-changing needs of people in our communities, which includes the 30 northeastern counties of Iowa. Catholic Charities continues to provide holistic care and mentoring to at-risk populations, furthering its mission of reducing poverty, strengthening families and empowering communities.

The human pain and national confusion of the Great Depression was the motivation to begin Catholic Charities.  The organization was founded to respond to the critical child displacement crisis through the establishment of St. Mary’s Orphan Home, adoption placement and foster care services. World War II and the Korean Conflict dominated social and economic systems during the 1940s–1950s. Catholic Charities responded by establishing its Refugee Resettlement program. This program served the archdiocese for 77 years before closing in 2017 due to the significant decrease in refugees welcomed into the United States.

In the 1960s, poverty levels drastically increased across the country. Catholic Charities responded by establishing safe and affordable low-income housing in Dubuque and Waterloo, and Catholic daycare. Catholic Charities owns and manages five properties, providing safe, affordable housing to more than 200 individuals and families. In the 21st century, seniors living alone are isolated and may be experiencing loneliness, which affects their mental health; families experience stress living paycheck to paycheck to meet basic needs. Adequate shelter is a basic human right, and this includes the safety and security of the shelter, including the neighborhood in which it is located. The life and dignity of the human person is at the core of Catholic social teaching and is exemplified through this care of the individual. Faith without works is dead.

During the 1970s, increasing inflation, unemployment and economic needs dominated the headlines. Catholic Charities provided support by responding to these stressors through mental health counseling, youth homes, and ministry for the separated and divorced. Currently, Catholic Charities employs eight counselors throughout the archdiocese who provide professional and faith-based counseling services, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. Faith without works is dead.

Supporting and strengthening families was central to Catholic Charities’ mission as the decades of the 1980s and 1990s progressed. This was accomplished through a variety of services including family counseling and support to farming families during the farm crisis. Catholic Charities continues to provide outreach programs created to serve at-risk populations, including Jail & Prison Ministry, Immigra­tion Legal Services and school-based counseling services.

Catholic Charities’ immigration attorneys provide affordable legal services to help reunite families by assisting them in navigating the immigration system and advocating on their behalf. Recent research shows that immigrant children in shelters — some hundreds of miles from their parents with unclear plans for reunification — may also be at increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other obvious mental health struggles include living in fear and dealing with stereotypes in the community. Catholic Charities assists with paperwork for green card and citizenship applications, family visas, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Temporary Protected Status, Violence Against Women Act and other family-based immigration legal services. Faith without works is dead.

Catholic Charities’ Jail & Prison Ministry provides support to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Individuals released from jail or prison often return to their communities with no employment, no home to return to and no support system, while at the same time needing to overcome the social and psychological challenges of incarceration. The mental health of ex-offenders is impacted because they are often judged for their past, how they struggle to find employment while having to live one day at a time to maintain their sobriety and put their life back together again. They overcome with the assistance of a vast network of volunteer mentors and support groups. Faith without works is dead.

According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, in any given year, 18 percent of adults report a problem with anxiety. Depression is the leading cause of disease burden each year, and one in 17 adults suffer from a serious mental illness resulting in 88 days (almost three months) in the last year where they were too sick to carry out activities of daily living, which is defined as eating, working and performing routine hygiene. Mental illness affects the people that Catholic Charities serves, and not just in the Mental Health Counseling program.

The next article in this series will focus on Catholic Charities’ Affordable Housing program. The inability to afford safe, quality housing can cause and exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions. For more information about the services that Catholic Charities provides, or to talk to a counselor, call 800-772-2758.

This article is part of a series on mental illness by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. To learn more about resources available, go to Lisa Turner, a licensed marriage and family therapist, is a counselor at Catholic Charities’ Ames office.


Photo courtesy of Pixabay.


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