A new ministry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Mechanicsburg is setting out to educate the community about mental health, provide a faith-based place for folks struggling with a diagnosis, and end the stigma associated with mental illness.
Simply titled Mental Health Ministry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, the newly-unveiled program is getting underway with outreach, support and education. And its goal is to reach people with a mental health diagnosis, their families and friends, and the faith community in general.
The program is strictly spiritual; it doesn’t involve clinical diagnoses or approaches. “But the beautiful piece to this is how the spiritual and the clinical can work together” in helping people struggling with mental illness, said Donna Nebistinsky, pastoral assistant at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and a member of the Mental Health Ministry team.
“Ending the stigma of mental illness is the huge piece to this entire ministry,” she said. “It’s designed so that we can be very creative and meet the needs of the parish and meet the needs of the Diocese, in particular.”
The ministry’s three pillars are focused on providing education, spiritual support and resources.
Educational pieces are designed for the community at large to help make folks aware of various aspects of mental health, including types of diagnoses, best practices and how to be supportive of friends, family members or co-workers struggling with mental illness.
On May 11, the parish began a program entitled “The Sanctuary Course for Catholics.” The eight-week program examines mental health and illness and how parishes can start conversations about these topics to be a place of support for others.
Additional educational pieces the parish plans to offer include guest speakers, courses and wellness programs. This month, the parish website is featuring a video series on mental health, with participants including Father Charles Persing, pastor, mental health team member Tim Danko, and Deacon Ed Shoener, founder of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers.
“We want to reduce the stigma associated with saying, ‘I struggle with a mental illness,’ or ‘I have a family member who struggles with mental illness,’” Nebistinsky said.
The ministry’s second pillar is spiritual support. This includes support for people struggling with mental illness, as well as support for loved ones accompanying them on the journey.
In this vein, the Mental Health Ministry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish is beginning spiritual support groups; the first will begin in June for those with a mental health diagnosis.
“Spiritual support groups are exactly just that – groups for spiritual support,” Nebistinsky said. “There’s no counselor, there’s no therapist. It’s a group of people who have come at this from a specific spiritual component who are there as companions to walk this walk and be supportive.”
Participants in the spiritual support groups will have an opportunity to share their struggles while being supported by their peers and Mental Health Ministry team members. Nebistinsky underscored that the ministry will not provide clinical support or diagnosis, but will be able to refer people to counselors, therapists and other professional clinical assistance as the need arises.
“One of the fundamental things we’re going to build over time is a connection to professional resources. We’ll establish a network of local counselors, and would even accompany them to ensure they get the access they need,” said Danko. “For people who care deeply, it’s easy to step over the line between ‘support’ and ‘counseling.’ One of the challenges will be to stay on the ‘supportive’ side of the line.”
The ministry’s third pillar is to gather resources that people can find in one place, including information, resources and websites.
“Our goal is to put the resources either on our website or have paper copies, so that if somebody reaches out, we can steer them in the right direction,” Nebistinsky said.
Embracing the Community
The establishment of the Mental Health Ministry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish came out of the increased awareness of mental health issues prevalent during the pandemic.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in 2020, one in five adults experienced a mental illness and one in six adolescents (ages 12-17) experienced a major depressive episode.
Examples of mental health conditions include anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.
As a mother, grandmother and pastoral associate concerned about the wellbeing of others and keenly aware of the mental health challenges people are facing today, Nebistinsky was scrolling Facebook during the pandemic and came across the Trauma-Informed Parishes group, which combines information supporting parishioners suffering from trauma. From there, Nebistinsky became connected with the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers. The lay association has programs in some 30 parishes across the country, now including St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Recognizing potential in bringing a mental health ministry to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Nebistinsky and Danko enrolled in an online course sponsored by the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers through the University of San Diego. For the course final, Nebistinsky and Danko were tasked with coming up with a plan to implement a mental health ministry at their parish. Once complete, they adjusted the plan to apply for a grant, and were awarded $10,000 to get the program up at running.
“What I have come to recognize in the short time I’ve been involved with this is that people who struggle – whether formally diagnosed or not – kind of feel alone,” Danko said. “In some cases, it’s a loneliness that comes from, ‘I don’t know anybody else who is struggling,’ or ‘I’m really embarrassed to talk about this, so I feel alone.’ The objective of reducing the stigma is to say, ‘It’s OK to talk about this, and it’s OK to admit that you’re struggling or suffering.”
He compared it to seeking support for a physical illness.
“If you say to somebody, ‘I have to have knee surgery,’ suddenly you’ll know 50 people who have had knee surgery, because you mentioned it. I think the same is true about mental suffering,” Danko remarked. “If you say, ‘I’m suffering from deep anxiety about this issue,’ you’ll find there are 20 people around you who are suffering from anxiety. There is a certain level of comfort that comes from knowing that you’re not alone.”
Danko said he also looks at this ministry through the lens of Jesus’ presence, even in our suffering.
“Sometimes I think – and I’ve had this experience in my life – when you’re struggling with something, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Christ is there for you and with you,” he said. “So another lens of this effort is helping people to recognize that Christ is there with them and He is a source of strength.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish extends a welcome to anyone who could benefit from the ministry. The program is rooted in the Catholic faith, but is open to everyone.
“People need a place of respite and refuge, especially those who are suffering from mental illness,” Danko said. “This is the place you can go to be safe, the place you can go for refuge, the place you can go to and be broken, and that’s ok.”
Nebistinsky expressed hope that the ministry will be a benefit to those struggling with mental illness, and help to remove the stigma associated with that struggle.
“So often, we close ourselves off from allowing others to see our humanness, and when we do that, we’re not helping the next generation to be mentally healthy or to be able to reach out for help when they need it,” she said. “When we can come before a congregation or a group of friends and say, ‘I have this need, I have this struggle,’ it…reinforces that sense of community we’re called to be in the Catholic Church. We need to embrace the community, support the community and build it up even more.”
For information about Mental Health Ministry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, visit the parish website at www.steas.net or Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/steasmech, or contact Donna Nebistinsky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers developed by Deacon Shoener of the Diocese of Scranton is available at www.catholicmhm.org.
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness
Hear the full interview on “Candid Catholic Convos”
The interview with Donna Nebistinsky and Tim Danko is available on the Diocesan website and on Spotify on May 15 at: Catholic Perspective Radio Program, News, Faith, Inspiration, Information, (hbgdiocese.org)
and on the Spotify app by searching
“Candid Catholic Convos.”
The episode will also air on these radio stations:
WHYF AM 720, Shiremanstown, May 14 at noon and May 15 at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
WHVR-AM 1280, Hanover, May 15 at 8 a.m.
WKOK-AM 1070, Sunbury, May 15 at 6:30 a.m.
WWSM-AM 1510, Lebanon, May 15 at 7 a.m.
www.wisl1480.com, Shamokin, May 15 at 11 a.m.