Suffering is part of the human condition, but it isn’t meant to be endured alone.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the mental health needs of many throughout the community have become more apparent, the Archdiocese of Baltimore is doing its part to get help to those who need it.
Nearly 1,000 archdiocesan employees, clergy, parishioners and community members (some unaffiliated with the church) have gone through Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training offered as part of the Mental Wellness Initiative launched by Archbishop William E. Lori about a year ago.
The training enables those who complete the program to notice when someone is demonstrating signs of psychological distress so they can connect a person in trouble with professional help.
MHFA originated in Australia. It has been gaining international acclaim, particularly as people continue to demonstrate signs of anxiety, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction and other conditions coming out of the pandemic. MHFA trainees are able to detect (but not diagnose) the symptoms of those conditions and hold important conversations with those at risk. The goal is to help them access resources to lead them out of the darkness.
“We’ve activated people to be first responders to the most alarming issue of our day,” said Yvonne Wenger, director of community affairs for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, who leads the Mental Wellness Initiative.
The archdiocese has offered 60 MHFA classes in both English and Spanish in the last year. Among those who have been certified through the program include 235 educators. Wenger calls MHFA a “new literacy.”
The training is made possible through a partnership with the Maryland Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Administration, which awarded the Mental Health Association of Maryland $135,000 in fiscal year 2022 to train a cohort of 31 (MHFA) instructors selected by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Nine instructors are bilingual.
“The Mental Health Association of Maryland provided ongoing support to me and our instructors throughout the initiative,” Wenger said. “I would describe their involvement as a partnership with the archdiocese. The goal is to create a self-sustaining cohort of instructors who can go on to continue to provide support throughout our parishes, schools and communities.”
Marcie Gibbons, a mother of four and a national trainer with 14 years MHFA experience, is a social worker at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn, where a teen-to-teen MHFA program is being piloted to the state. This would allow students in 10th through 12th grades to recognize the signs of mental illness and lead their peers in need to trained adults, who can continue the MHFA process. As MHFA grows, other “niche” certifications are becoming available, including one for the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Bradley Fish, a parishioner of the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Ligouri in Baltimore, who attended a spring MHFA training session at St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park, said he has experienced depression and had family members suffer suicidal thoughts. Comments such as “just get over it,” “be a man,” and “grow up” are counterproductive, he said.
“Mental illness is a potentially life-or-death situation, so we need to treat it just like we do with physical illnesses,” he noted. “I hope to gain from this training a better ability to listen and gain receptivity to those suffering from mental illness.”
Hillevi Flores, a parishioner of the pastorate of St. Rose of Lima in Brooklyn and St. Athanasius in Baltimore, leads most Spanish training across the archdiocese as a certified adult and youth MHFA instructor, including a Spanish training at St. John the Evangelist in Columbia in May. She said the Hispanic community is in great need of the training sessions because many are immigrants who come with traumatic experiences from their home countries and experience isolation from their families and their culture in this country.
Melissa Freyman of St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park was trained to be an MHFA instructor through the archdiocesan initiative.
“People want to help, but they need to be equipped,” Freyman said, noting that suffering is universal, “but we can accompany, help and encourage people through it.”
Freyman suggests that people who are looking to help but don’t know where to start should refer the person in need to the archdiocese’s “Help is Here” website for resources that will support not only mental health, but spiritual health, as well.
“If you need healing and mercy, the Catholic Church is where you can go,” she said.
For more information, visit archbalt.org/help-is-here. The national suicide and crisis lifeline is 988.
Priscila González de Doran contributed to this story.
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