Hidden no more

Mary Decker and her father, Jim Decker, at the Archdiocese of Seattle's Special Needs Mass in March. Photo: Stephen Brashear Mary Decker and her father, Jim Decker, at the Archdiocese of Seattle's Special Needs Mass in March. Photo: Stephen Brashear

The Archdiocese of Seattle and local Catholics work to destigmatize mental illness

When Jim Decker’s daughter Mary began showing signs of mental illness as she transitioned from high school to college, it threw the Decker family into a tumultuous period of meetings with doctors, different medications and hospitalizations.

As one way to cope, father and daughter began going to daily Mass or Communion services together. Both were already practicing Catholics, but adding daily church visits provided some peaceful, quiet reflection time, Jim said. Plus, “It was something we could do together.”

Eventually Jim was asked to lector at and then lead Communion services. This increased role at church was the first trigger, he said, in a discernment process about becoming a deacon.

Mary was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been living with the illness for 22 years. When Mary first became sick, Jim soon realized how little support there was for family members dealing with a loved one’s mental illness. So he became increasingly involved in mental health awareness efforts. He and his wife, Tarry, joined the first National Alliance on Mental Illness Family-to-Family class in Kitsap County. Jim taught NAMI classes for 10 years and serves on the Kitsap NAMI board.

“Being able to help others kind of became the focus of what I wanted to do,” Jim said. “That drew me into a life of service. That’s what it’s about to be a deacon.”

Deacon Jim was ordained in 2007 and now serves at Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Bremerton. He has become a point person on mental illness, including during his own diaconate formation, when he had a fellow NAMI teacher lead mental health awareness training for his deacon class. He recently joined the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Mental Illness.

“There are a lot of people who will approach you when they know that you are ‘safe,’ that you understand” mental illness, he said.

While Mary doesn’t attend Mass often because of the nature of her illness, she is the primary editor for each of her father’s homilies. It gives them time to discuss the Sunday Scriptures together.

The entire Decker family is close-knit. Mary has received support from her mother, older brother and sister and their families, who all live on Bainbridge Island. Mary is a morning caregiver for her niece and nephew and keeps her dad’s schedule on track, as well as overseeing household tasks. Her Chihuahua, Sacia, acts as her shadow and her comfort. Her illness, Mary said, is “something to deal with, but I do have such a good family,” and their encouragement has been key.

“We have our ups and downs, but we do all right,” Deacon Jim said. “We see how important it is for people to have this support.”

Mary decker and her dogMary Decker and her dog, Sacia. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Stigma out, support in

He wishes that even more help would come from parish communities. “The main thing for me really is stigma and, somehow, someway trying to overcome it,” Deacon Jim said.

“We speak of how people are created in the image of God and that none are to be excluded,” he said. Yet he cites a Baylor University study that showed a third of people in the U.S. believe, as he put it, that mental illness is “a character flaw, a moral fault, or a sign of weakness, rather than what it is — a disease of the brain.”

Mary said of negative depictions of mental illness, “Unfortunately you get it on TV and music and movies and all that kind of stuff.”

“There are a lot more people in need than [anyone] knows,” she said. “A lot of people are afraid to make it known.”

The two feel it’s important to share their story of living with and finding support for mental illness. “I do not want to feel ashamed of myself,” Mary said.

Father Patrick Howell
Father Patrick Howell

“Stigma goes deep, but that’s where religion, I think, can really help too,” said Jesuit Father Patrick Howell, a distinguished professor at Seattle University’s Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture. He has written a book about his own experience with a period of acute psychosis in the 1970s and another book on spiritual guidance for mental illness.

“Where do people get support if not from the church?” he said. “Because it’s a hidden illness and people are reluctant to talk about it.

“And so, if you have an open, welcoming community, that possibility of a deeper healing comes.”

Father Howell recently contributed to an American Psychiatric Association publication, Mental Health: A Guide for Faith Leaders. Among his wishes for local parishes is that at least once a year every priest would give a homily on mental health. He also would like to see parishes offer mental health training to staff and host family-to-family support groups.

He believes that until recently, the Catholic Church has been behind in addressing mental health, partly because it got lost among a myriad of other issues. Now, not only are people more willing to talk about having mental illnesses, he said, but the Catholic Church in the U.S. is becoming more organized about the issue. The NCPD Council on Mental Illness is just one example (see box).

Local awareness

In the Archdiocese of Seattle, the Pastoral Care office formed a new mental health committee two years ago. Its goal is to bring attention to mental health issues while reducing the attached stigma and providing further resources. Father Howell and Deacon Jim are among the committee members.

 Erica Cohen Moore
Erica Cohen Moore

“Everybody knows someone with mental health issues,” said Erica Cohen Moore, archdiocesan director for pastoral care. One in five adults experiences some type of mental illness in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“We want to make people aware that they can come forward and not to be embarrassed about it,” Cohen Moore said.

The archdiocesan mental health committee has held a Mental Health Ministry Day the last two years and plans to focus on working with schools on suicide prevention in the coming year. It collaborates with organizations like Catholic Community Services of Western Washington and supports local parish efforts on mental illness.

Among those parish efforts is a new mental health ministry at St. Luke Parish in Shoreline. The group will host an education night on May 11 (see box above) and will hold a regular mental health support group with a spiritual focus, co-facilitated by a trained therapist.

Anisa Ralls, an emergency room social worker who co-chairs the ministry, said two fellow parishioners got the idea for the group after attending the archdiocese’s Mental Health Ministry Day last fall.

“We felt it was a big need in our community,” Ralls said. “It doesn’t matter if you have cancer or depression, you should be able to go to your church and feel welcome and get the support that you need.”

The Mental Health & Wellness Ministry at St. James Cathedral in Seattle has a full-time mental health nurse on staff. It, as well as other Catholic mental health efforts, took inspiration from Seattle’s Mental Health Chaplaincy, which Rev. Craig Rennebohm of the United Church of Christ started in 1987.

The archdiocese’s annual Special Needs Mass, which focuses on welcoming people with a range of disabilities, includes those with mental illness. Both Deacon Jim and Mary Decker have attended the Mass each year and say it is powerful. Many attendees at the Masses have been moved to tears, said Deacon Jim. “I think it was the fact that everybody was welcome and everybody had something to give.”


St. Luke Parish in Shoreline will host a mental health educational night on May 11 from 6:30–8 p.m., with a panel of speakers including Jesuit Father Patrick Howell; Deacon Roy Harrington, pastoral coordinator at St. Benedict Parish in Seattle; and Trez Buckland, a nursing professor and mental health advocate.



Learn more about religious resources for mental illness:

Archdiocesan Mental Health Committee.

American Psychiatric Association’s Mental Health: A Guide for Faith Leaders is available here.

National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Mental Illness is sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

NAMI Washington offers family and peer support groups throughout the state. NAMI’s FaithNet offers an interfaith network.

Pathways to Promise is an interfaith national resource center on mental illness.

St. James Cathedral Mental Health & Wellness Ministry.

Northwest Catholic - May 2016

Anna Weaver

Anna Weaver was the multimedia, online and social media editor, and writer for Northwest Catholic from 2013-2018.

Website: annapweaver.com