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US bishop's crusade against suicide epidemic is personal

Seventh of nine children, Bishop Dolan of the Diocese of Phoenix has lost a brother, two sisters, and a brother-in-law to suicide

Bishop Dolan of the Diocese of Phoenix

Bishop Dolan of the Diocese of Phoenix. (Photo: Facebook)

Published: January 24, 2023 04:48 AM GMT

Updated: January 24, 2023 04:54 AM GMT

The note Bishop John P. Dolan's sister Mary left behind was both an apology, and something of a plea: "To all my friends and family -- I am sorry. I hope you continue with your mental health work, John."

The seventh of nine children, Bishop Dolan of the Diocese of Phoenix has lost a brother, two sisters and a brother-in-law to suicide. Other siblings have also wrestled with mental health challenges.

This most recent family tragedy -- the suicide of his youngest sister, Mary -- came just two months before the Dec. 13, 2022, ribbon-cutting inauguration of the Diocese of Phoenix's first mental health ministry in its 53-year history, an initiative personally led by Bishop Dolan.

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"I have to say, that was one of the hardest things I had ever read," Bishop Dolan told OSV News. "I didn't expect to have that as her parting words. I look back on that, and … it's kind of hard for me to comprehend."

For Bishop Dolan, his mental health ministry expertise has come at a terrible personal price -- which is why he has also become one of the most outspoken American prelates on the necessity of spiritual accompaniment for those suffering from mental illness.

The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, for which Bishop Dolan is chaplain, states that mental health ministry is complementary to the work of mental health professionals. The ministry takes the form of faith-based, God-centered, trained volunteer-led journeying with those experiencing mental well-being challenges "without direct implementation of psychological interventions."

Mental health ministry is spiritual and social support -- not medical diagnosis or care -- for those suffering in their mental health.

In a life punctuated by the trauma of suicide, Bishop Dolan's now-fierce advocacy for the expansion of mental health ministry in the Catholic Church developed over time, beginning with support of parish and diocesan mental health programs while he served as a priest -- then auxiliary bishop -- in the Diocese of San Diego, from 1989-2022.

In the new Diocese of Phoenix Office of Mental Health Ministry, established with a major grant from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, the focus is threefold: education, accompaniment, and advocacy. Priests and deacons will be taught "mental health first aid" to enable them to seek help for those in crisis. Laypeople will be trained to establish places of accompaniment -- support groups at parishes, to gather and share. And the diocesan office itself will promote policymaking that recognizes and supports the continuing and widespread crisis of mental health illness.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide was responsible for nearly 46,000 American deaths -- one about every 11 minutes -- in 2020. Another 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million made a plan, and 1.2 million attempted suicide.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates that one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, while 17% of youth (ages 6-17) annually experience a mental health disorder.

Bishop Dolan's brother Tom took his life when Dolan was 13, and in eighth grade. It was an era -- during the 70s -- when such things just weren't discussed. Advanced diagnostic imaging tools and neuroscience -- and with them, a better understanding of why people take their own lives -- were far in the future.

So Bishop Dolan's pain was buried. "Human beings are very good at stuffing things down and hiding things," he wryly remarked.

But that tactic only worked for so long.

After his sister Therese and her husband, Joe, were also lost to suicide over a Thanksgiving holiday, Bishop Dolan returned to St. Francis Seminary on the University of San Diego campus -- where he declined counseling. A few months later, his hopes of being elected the seminary's senior class president were cruelly dashed when some fellow seminarians informed him the decision not to elect him was owing to his siblings' suicides.

He freely admits that all of it triggered something. "I yelled at God. I don't think if I was in eighth grade I would have yelled at God; I would have felt like I might go to hell or something. But as a junior in college, I didn't care. I was just going to let God have it, anyway."

The episode was, in some ways, cathartic. "I discovered, of course, God is big enough that he can handle it," said Bishop Dolan. But still, he had no therapy.

A few years after becoming a priest, he finally sought counseling. "I hit a wall. It was certainly a form of depression, but … it was more about, 'Where am I going with this?' and 'What does God have in store for me?'" Bishop Dolan clarified that this wasn't a vocational crisis; instead, "it was more of an identity crisis for me, because I was wondering, 'Who am I on this planet -- and why am I living, versus my brother and sister?'"

With help came candor.

"Before, I would never have talked about it -- out of shame, and out of fear of bringing shame to my family," Bishop Dolan said. "Now, people can't shut me up." His agenda features regular media and speaking engagements on the topic of mental health.

Bishop Dolan and Deacon Ed Shoener of The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers are also co-editors of two books, "When a Loved One Dies by Suicide" -- which has a complementary film series -- and "Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders," both published by Ave Maria Press in 2020.

Bishop Dolan's personal campaign is progressively raising awareness of the need for mental health ministry in the church. "I'm already hearing that among bishops," he said, "how they want to start these up."

Bishop Dolan and Deacon Shoener have also engaged the Vatican -- with hopes of a future mental health conference -- and the Diocese of Phoenix has instituted an annual Mass of Remembrance for People Who Died by Suicide.

Bishop Dolan's openness about a subject that can still raise the specter of stigma has encouraged those in his diocese afflicted by the grief of suicide. He's not simply their bishop -- he's also fellow survivor of suicide loss.

"When I'm able to talk about it," he said, "people come out of the woodwork to share -- for the first time they've ever shared -- that someone in their family died by suicide."

While the Diocese of Phoenix Office of Mental Health Ministry is only a little over a month old, it has already achieved an important goal, in Bishop Dolan's estimation. He said, "We're providing a voice to anyone who chooses to listen in."

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