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New York bishops urge 'love, respect' for people with mental illness

 | 
Albany, N.Y.

The Catholic bishops of New York urged compassion and acceptance for people suffering from mental illness in a new pastoral statement, and the state Catholic conference, their public policy arm, issued specific policy recommendations related to those with mental illness.

The bishops' statement, " 'For I Am Lonely and Afflicted': Toward a Just Response to the Needs of Mentally Ill Persons," cited the example of Jesus in the Gospels in demonstrating how society should respond to those with mental illness.

"We must reject the twin temptations of stereotype and fear, which can cause us to see mentally ill people as something other than children of God, made in his image and likeness, deserving of our love and respect," they said.

The bishops noted that fewer than 5 percent of violent acts are committed by people with mental illness, adding that "persons with mental illness are more often victims than perpetrators of violent acts, and they also are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse."

They also urged Catholics to be welcoming of people with mental illness.

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"Let us be clear, it is our duty and the duty of every pastor, every chaplain, every religious education director and Catholic school principal, and all others in positions of church leadership at every level to welcome with openness and affection those men, women and children who are afflicted with any form of mental illness and to integrate them into the life of the church to the fullest extent possible," said the statement, released Feb. 4.

Even though society has "made great strides" in its understanding and treatment of mental illness, they said, "labels and fears remain" and influence how people access the services they need.

The bishops pointed out that they were echoing a similar statement issued by the New York State Catholic Conference in 1980 on the care and treatment of those suffering from mental illness.

"What is striking about this document 34 years later is how much of it continues to be relevant today as we have the same debates, try to counter the same fears and witness the same human suffering," they said.

The Catholic conference's public policy recommendations include a proposed language change in gun control legislation -- the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, known as the NY SAFE Act - with regard to when mental health professionals must report concerns related to potentially violent behavior of their clients.

It said mental health and medical professionals, "rightly, have always been required to report individuals who they believe pose an 'imminent threat' to themselves or others." But the new law requires those professionals to "report any individual who they believe 'is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.'"

Providers of services to those with mental illness, the conference said, are afraid "this lower standard will discourage individuals from getting the help they need, out of fear of being reported." The Catholic conference urged the language be amended to return to the previous use of "'imminent danger' language, with a specific definition of what constitutes an imminent danger."

The conference also called for adequate funding for community-based mental health services and would like to see crisis intervention teams -- trained in mental health issues -- within law enforcement agencies. It also stressed that the state should increase its mental health services to prisoners.

The state Catholic Conference emphasized that it would continue to work with the state's Catholic Charities agencies in partnership with the state to "address the needs of mentally ill persons for their good, the good of their families, and the good of all society."

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