Monday, August 4, 2014

Set up a Catholic Ministry for psychiatric patients and their families: An open letter to Archbishop William Goh

4th August 2014

Archbishop William Goh

Head of the Catholic Church in Singapore

Your Grace Archbishop William Goh,

I read your National Day Message on Singapore’s upcoming 49th birthday and I’m encouraged by the points you have raised with regards to those who are on the fringes of society – such as those with psychiatric disorders – “A nation that goes forth” (CN, August 10).

I also applaud the Roman Catholic Prison Ministry (RCPM) for the compassion and support which they offer to prison inmates; to you – Archbishop Goh and the priests that stand alongside them in their rehabilitation journey –“Archbishop celebrates Mass with prison inmates” (CN, August 10).

Undoubtedly, the support from the Catholic Church will encourage the prisoners to reflect on their past mistakes and turn over a new leaf. 

Just as prisoners are given full support by the Catholic Church, Catholics who suffer fom mental illness also deserve equal support.   I know of several Catholics who are suffering from depression and other types of mental illness; and their caregivers need a helping hand because caring for a loved suffering from mental illness is often an isolated and arduous journey.  Priests are often at a lost when dealing with psychiatric patients as the illness is complex.

For many Catholics experiencing mental illness, the church can be both a place of welcome and alienation for them as well as their caregivers.  

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) one in four people will be affected by mental illness or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.  WHO has also reported that around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability – Worldwide. 

In Singapore, about 10 percent of the population or one in ten will be affected by mental illness.
Stigma, discrimination, neglect, loneliness and lack of support and understanding of mental illness prevent sufferers from seeking treatment. 

Although there is a Catholic VWO in CLARITY, the church needs to cast its net wider in order to reach out to those who feel awkward to step forward – be it for treatment or support as mental illness carries a heavy social stigma.  

To this end, I therefore urge you, Archbishop Goh to consider setting up a ministry dedicated to psychiatric patients and their families. Although it is an area that is challenging, I fervently believe that those who have walked the journey and have a passion for mental illness can help make a difference in the lives of those who are ostracized from society.  If we have a Prison Ministry, I don’t see why we cannot have a dedicated ministry to support people with mental illness.  

Through this ministry, there could public education talks on mental disorders held in churches to raise more awareness of mental illness with caregiver sharing skills to encourage and motivate caregivers to embrace caregiving as a noble job.  Volunteers in this ministry could also visit patients in psychiatric wards and sing, pray and engage them with the love that the church advocates for every human being.   With the assistance of the nurses in psychiatric hospitals, outings can also be arranged for psychiatric patients who are receiving treatment.   

With my 40 years’ experience in caring for my late wife who coped well with schizophrenia until her untimely passing in April this year, I will be first to volunteer my services. It’s a vocation which I have a passion for.  Moreover, my journey with my wife is a good example of how Catholics can keep their marriage vows intact by “caring and loving a spouse in sickness and in health, for better or for worse.”   

May I have your response, please, Your Grace?  Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you.

Raymond Anthony Fernando

Advocate for the Mentally ill , Model Caregiver 2007 and Mental Health Champion 2010.
Volunteer with: The Institute of Mental Health (IMH), Silver Ribbon Singapore (SRS), CLUB HEAL and the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH).

 Footnote: (1) Archbishop Goh: I have written to you a few days ago, but have yet to secure a reply from your office. If it takes some time to think through this, at least provide me with an acknowledgement or an interim reply.  Keep the communications lines open, please - more so when I have take much effort to put this proposal up.

(2) What is needed to get this proposed ministry going is for the archdiocesan to tie up with CLARITY, SPI which has a Family Service Centre, volunteer Catholic doctors & nurses who are in mental health and the Catholic Nurses Guild. It may take some effort, but I believe it is worth investing in seeing the increasing number of people suffering from mental illness.  We must translate words into action.
Reply from CARITAS following my second letter to Archbishop William Goh:
Dear Raymond,
His Grace, Archbishop William Goh has forwarded your email to Caritas to look into your proposal to set up a dedicated ministry to support people with mental illness.
I am sure you are aware that CLARITY was incorporated in October 2010 with objective of alleviating people suffering from mental problems or issues. But you may not be aware that they have been doing great works in providing psycho-therapy and counselling, particularly for persons struggling with mild to moderate mental illness. They have organised art therapy open studio, mental wellness relaxation exercise, meditation and also facilitated support groups as part of the supportive therapy.
They have conducted psycho-education workshops and training for various groups and organisations
1. Understanding mental health - with Church of Risen Christ (befrienders to elderly)
2. Happiness within your reach – with ACMI (foreign domestic helpers)
3. Fridays with Clarity – an in-house developed mental wellness programme to reach those with mental illness but do not want to undergo therapy
As part of their promotion of mental wellness, they have conducted:
1. Mental Wellness Relaxation Exercises Programme – both in English and Chinese.
2. Open Studio Art Therapy
3. Art & Music Jamming
4. Pandan Rosette making workshop
They recently started 2 community programmes, one with Catholic Welfare Services (CWS) in the city area and the other with Harmony Activity Centre (HAC) in Aljunied area reaching out to those who are poor with mental illness or some form of psychiatric disorder, those who are either living alone or with a flat-mate. CLARITY has developed a supportive therapy programme for these two groups of identified beneficiaries separately to invite and integrate these them into a community of acceptance, empower them with independent living skills and integrate them to the larger society.

Your proposal to set up a ministry dedicated to psychiatric patients and their families especially their caregivers who needs a helping hand is only possible if it is done at parish level. But starting community based support groups in parish will take time to develop and manpower resources to coordinate and run the programmes. Currently, CLARITY is only able to serve those around the Yishun area where their office is and those with CWS and HAC, due to limited manpower resources. But this could only be built up over time, maybe in the next 3 to 5 years.
For your information, CLARITY has started working with St Anthony Church in Woodlands to start a wellness programme. For Risen Christ, they are working with their pastoral co-ordinator to explore how they can work together to support persons with mental health, especially when they are located at Agape Village next year.

I am sure with your 40 years’ of experience caring for your late wife, you would be a great volunteer. Perhaps you would like to start volunteering with either St Anthony Church or Risen Christ since they have already started some programmes. As mentioned earlier, to roll out in all Parishes would take some time.

Lastly, I understand from CLARITY that they have been providing care-giving assistance and arranging volunteers to be with your late wife in the last year or so until her untimely demise in April this year. May perpetual light shine upon her, may she rest in peace

God bless

Bernadette Lau
Executive Director
Caritas Singapore


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