CHICAGO, May 24--With nearly two dozen residents from a home for the mentally ill among the congregation, Rev. Charles Bolser of Maternity B.V.M. Catholic Church in Bourbonnais, Illinois, called Sunday for an end to the stigma often associated with the illness.
"We live in a society that is in many ways schizophrenic, depressed, anxious," the pastor said in his sermon. "We're all dysfunctional, just in different ways."
In what is part of a larger trend for churches to include the mentally ill in parish life, Maternity B.V.M. leaders hope the discussion in the church will help increase understanding about disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.
As the awareness of the biological component to mental illness has grown in the past two decades, many religious groups have expanded their effort to provide counseling and other services.
"There's more openness," said Connie Rakitan, chair of the mental illness ministries for the Chicago Archdiocese, which also sponsors educational programs for priests and deacons.
"In general, the churches are recognizing that Jesus hung out with the crippled and the lame and the troubled."
That openness has taken many forms.
Last fall, the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chicago's Michigan Avenue held a six-week seminar on mental illnesses.
In DuPage County, Ill., several Catholic and Protestant churches offered screening for depression last fall. And a pastor at the University of Chicago often speaks about her battles with depression as a way to connect with members of her flock who face similar problems.
The outreach, mental health experts say, helps people understand mental illness while helping those with the disorders.
"This is recognition that we do not have to segregate these people," said Randy Wells, executive director of National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Illinois. "This is saying to people with mental illness and their families: 'You are just like everyone else.'"
The National Alliance estimates about 5 percent of the adult population suffers from serious mental illness, and one in five suffer from a diagnosable disorder.
For Michael Cleary, Maternity B.V.M. has become a home. A laborer who couldn't hold down a job, he battled debilitating depression--and the alcohol he used to self-medicate his problems--until settling into an uneasy life at a home with other mentally ill patients 18 years ago in the Chicago suburb of Bourbonnais.
A few years ago, he began attending mass on Wednesdays, celebrated at the home by a priest from Maternity B.V.M. Eventually, he started attending Sunday mass at the church, then daily mass.
Recently, he was named to the parish council., and he is studying to be a lay member of the Carmelite Religious Order.
In between classes at the Carmelite Spiritual Center in Darien, Cleary writes religious poems and prayers and reads about saints and holy people.
"This has really given me a purpose," said Cleary, who leads a Bible study class at the home and who reads Scripture at Sunday mass.
"It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but you just don't feel a part of the community or society. You feel like you're on the fringe of it," he said of the effects of his disease. "But I feel right at home at the church. I think you'll find the stigma more in society as a whole, but not in the church."
Rev. Daphne Burt, associate dean of Rockefeller Chapel at University of Chicago, talks openly about her 14-year struggle with chronic depression, both from the pulpit and one-on-one.
"I am generally energetic and very active. And people don't associate that with depression," said Burt, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. "By my talking, I do believe it enables people to talk about it."
Now, though, this talk must translate into a greater effort for social change, said Tom Lambert, a deacon in the archdiocese of Chicago and past president of National Alliance of the Mentally Ill in Greater Chicago.
Lambert applauds the archdiocese and Cardinal Francis George for leadership on this issue. Lambert wants religious organizations to do more, such as speak out against discrimination in the workplace and push for better insurance benefits for mental disorders.