When Catholic bishops and leaders share their experiences with mental illness, it encourages other Catholics to seek help and to know that recovery is possible, a national Catholic group has said.

In a statement issued Monday, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Mental Illness applauded Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska “on his complete candor regarding his recent experience of coping with mental illness.”

“Based on Bishop Conley's public testimony, other individuals in leadership positions are more likely to be upfront about their mental wellbeing. They too are seen as capable of recovery and are finding ways to become more effective and committed to ministry than ever before.”

“An illness is an illness not a weakness of character,” the group said.

In an interview with CNA earlier this month, Conley shared his experiences after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and while taking an 11-month mental health leave of absence for his recovery.

“I was trying to fix myself and as time went on, I realized that I couldn't fix myself while I was still on the job, so to speak,” Conley told CNA in an interview published Nov. 14.

The misconduct of Catholic clergy, both locally and at large, weighed heavily on Conley, starting in the summer of 2018. There were also some difficult school closings and the death of a young priest, those events were triggers for the anxiety and depression that Conley experienced.

He tried first to get help while continuing his duties as a bishop, but in late 2019 Conley presented his case to the apostolic nuncio, who advised the bishops to take some time off and receive professional help. Conley spent 11 months on leave, receiving help in Phoenix, Arizona from doctors and psychologists and a spiritual director.

His return to the Diocese of Lincoln was announced earlier this month.

Conley told CNA he has been open about his experience because he wants to encourage others to seek help when they need it.
Such testimonies can be a helpful step in increasing awareness and advocacy for others with mental illness, the NCPD explained.

Conley told CNA this month he had initially been afraid that his mental illness would be seen as a sign of weakness. But he said that after he announced his mental health leave, people reached out to him, saying they were grateful for his willingness to share about his experience.

The group encouraged other Catholic leaders to share their testimonies of mental illness and recovery, and to work to connect their communities to mental health resources.

“Through the awareness made possible by such testimonies as Bishop Conley's, doors can open to ensure that anyone seeking help, including family and friends, will have easy access to information, referrals, and good sound advice,” the NCPD said.

The NCPD was founded in 1982, with the mission of providing resources and advocacy for disabled Catholics, with a focus on participation in the sacraments and parish life of the Church.

The NCPD's Council on Mental Illness was founded in 2006, with this mission: “Following Jesus who embraced all, we reach out to accompany our brothers and sisters with mental illness and their families while assisting the Catholic community by providing resources and education for spiritual and pastoral support.”

Advocacy for people with mental illness “promotes a just society and an end to stigma, which is the biggest obstacle towards healing and recovery,” the group said in its statement.