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Mental Health Week

Clergy look to help with mental illness

Lutheran pastor Al Jensen went public from the pulpit a few weeks ago with his own struggle with depression in the 1990s to help parishioners acknowledge their own mental health issues and get help.

"I revealed in my sermon that I myself suffered from depression in the winter of 1999. I struggled with it mightily, not knowing everything about depression, not knowing how to get out when it gets ugly," Jensen said recently.

He told parishioners at Oro Valley's Resurrection Lutheran Church, 11575 N. First Ave., that he decided to get help from a mental health professional and take an antidepressant.

"After the service, people came up to me and were very appreciative that a pastor opened up to them," Jensen said.

To help him and other clergy, Interfaith Community Services is providing clergy with up to date information on community mental health services and 24/365 crisis services for those at risk in a mental health crisis.

Paul Duckro, a Ph.D. psychologist and the Diocese of Tucson's director of child, adolescent and adult protection, is working at the direction of Bishop Gerald Kicanas with ISC in its efforts to help "leaders in faith communities be aware that mental illness is present in their community."

Duckro said he is helping clergy to recognize when those who present for assistance, members of the community and people who come to churches looking for help "and the real problem is mental illness."

"Over the last 50 years, there's been a real appreciation of and understanding of mental illness and what treatment can offer," Duckro said.

"What this (effort by ICS) is doing is opening the subject again and making the services easily accessible, making us aware of community resources."

The aim is for clergy to know about the Crisis Response Center (operated by Crisis Response Network of Southern Arizona) and the Southern Arizona Mental Health Corp. and to help the faith community to learn how to interface with those kinds of services.

People come to clergy for help "but we also need to recognize what we can't offer, the psychiatric and psychological services, particularly through a crisis response team. They can make sure the person gets to the right services."

When someone with clearly no resources asks for help, clergy need to recognize that referring that person to private services "is useless." That is when the services of SAMHC, with its Mobile Acute Crisis team can help by assessing the individual on site or by phone.

"Because of the economy, people often come to us for help and we can offer them something - welcome, a sense of respect," Duckro said. But the economy makes everything more difficult and more stressful. We need to be aware of the mental health services that are available and be able to provide people with the number to call, he said.

The psychologist said it's important for faith communities to continue to be welcoming, respectful and resourceful in getting people the help they need.

"Mental health is always going to be present in our communities and situational factors like the economy will trigger" symptoms of mental illness. "It's important to react with compassion, not fear, and with resources, not stigma."

Cutbacks in AHCCCS have removed a safety net for those who at least had a road to services, he said. "Many are without services and that's a challenge for everyone in the community." 

And clergy cannot provide mental health services.

"It's very important for all persons, whatever their profession, to stay within limits of their competence," Duckro said. "It's not up to the clergy to try to make a diagnosis. As a faith community, we can always provide respect, welcome and compassion."

And with referrals for treatment, people who need help can go to people who are trained to do that, he said.

"Oftentimes clergy finds themselves not knowing how to refer" and wanting to help, Pastor Jensen said.

"If we're not a licensed counselor in certain areas, we (still) feel like we need to do the fixing but we're not here to fix people."

To help his congregants, in addition to using the information provided by ICS, "we remind them people are here to be protected and loved and we have a Total Wellness Committee that offers workshops on our campus to help folks emotionally, physically, spiritually."

Jensen said he uses the information on community-based mental health services provided by ICS to help parishioners try to get the help they need.

"And we make sure we have a communicator in the church who provides information to the church on ICS through our weekly newsletter, online at www.orovalley.org," he said.

"The workplace is not the place to let your boss know you are struggling with anxiety," he said. "The faith community can be that place for people who recognize they need help."

Rabbi Samuel Cohon, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, 225 N. Country Club Rd., also provides mental health resource information to congregants who ask for help.

Cohon said rabbis have always provided pastoral counseling over a wide variety of issues "but in the last few years, the level of stress on people who are underemployed, unemployed and losing their businesses has created "an entire array of problems for people." These days, insurance companies "want to cut coverage, eliminating the availability of the kind of counseling that can help people," he said.

"So many people are not outside the health network and can't get counseling. They make too much to get charitable services so they're stuck, or they're too embarrassed to ask for help, for financial reasons. It has created a real mess, " Cohon said.

"For rabbis, priests and ministers who provide pastoral care, moral support and counseling, effective referrals is such an important part of what we do. But it's harder and harder to serve as stewards, referring people to services which they can't get and we end up trying to provide them. We're not especially equipped for that," Cohon said.

"In Judaism, it's pretty normal if you have a problem, go ask the rabbi, but this is pretty much above and beyond what has (traditionally) been asked in a normal pastoral setting. It's not that there aren't excellent (mental health) agencies and people in private practice. But agencies are overloaded, there are waiting lists. It's a pretty critical situation."

"Sometimes people are on medication and the medication is not successful. They've used up their visits to a psychiatrist and they're trying to keep their heads above water, too."

Mental Health Week, Oct. 7-13

Lunch and Learn about mental illness

  • Interfaith Community Services
  • Noon, Thursday
  • Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 2331 E. Adams St.
  • To register, call 297-2738, ext. 233. The fee is $10, including lunch.
  • University of Arizona President Emeritus Dr. Peter Likins will discuss his family's experience with mental illness.

Mental health resources

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