Beyond stigma: a deacon who ministers to the mentally ill

A reminder of how we are called to serve all who hunger — and that hunger can take many forms: 

When Deacon Tom Lambert’s wife was hospitalized for open heart surgery, friends brought unsolicited meals to the family’s door. “For three or four weeks, every day at 6 o’clock, the bell would ring and a different family would bring us dinner,” he said. Those neighbors and fellow parishioners were responding to a need.

But a different illness in his family some years later garnered no response. “When our daughter was diagnosed with mental illness, no one came to the door,” he said.

That was 25 years ago, and Deacon Lambert, who co-chairs the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Mental Illness, said awareness is essential in overcoming the stigma associated with a disease of the mind.In the United States, severe or persistent mental illness affects 1 in 17 Americans. The mental illness disability rate has more than doubled since the 1980s and increased six-fold since the 1950s. Some clinicians and researchers believe the increase has been influenced by external factors, including environmental and social causes…

…Deacon Lambert said that many people at Sunday Mass privately struggle with mental illness and the vast majority are managing their illness well.

“Nobody’s going to come up and say, ‘Well, I have schizophrenia, but I go to work every day, I hold a job, I have a marriage.’ But I guarantee there’s a lot of people who are in that situation,” he said.

As “people of compassion and justice,” Deacon Lambert said, Catholics can help by creating safe havens for people to talk about their mental illness and allow their faith to be part of their healing. Even a prayer intention at Mass may spark hope, he added.

In reaction to his daughter’s diagnosis, faith played a significant role, the deacon said. “(Our faith) was crucial in getting us through that,” he explained. “Through prayer and turning things over to the Lord, saying we’re going to deal with this situation with the strength and hope that comes from God and our faith. That’s really what got us through, quite honestly. It’s as simple as that.”

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