Clergy education focuses on mental health, suicide prevention

Priests and deacons of the diocese were invited April 23 to participate in a continuing education course on mental health and suicide awareness.

Scott Roeder, a parishioner of St. Paul Church in St. Cloud, first raised the idea with Bishop Donald Kettler after reading the books “When a Loved One Dies by Suicide: Comfort, Hope and Healing for Grieving Catholics” and “Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders.” Bishop John Dolan, auxiliary bishop of San Diego, and Deacon Ed Shoener, a permanent deacon from Scranton, Pennsylvania, are the authors of the books.

Roeder lost his son, Jackson, to suicide in 2017, after he struggled with mental health issues for years.

“I found the books to be very good in discussing the impact of suicide and how it is handled by the Church,” Roeder said. “I read both books and wondered what knowledge the local clergy had on this topic. I decided to call the bishop’s office and find out.”

Father Joe Herzing, who is in charge of continuing education for clergy in the Diocese of St. Cloud, responded to Roeder’s inquiry.

“We talked about the book for clergy, and I sent him a copy,” Roeder said. “He then reached out to me and said he was coordinating an afternoon event and was wondering if I had recommended speakers. I decided to contact Bishop Dolan and Deacon Ed to ask them if they would be interested in speaking, and they said yes.”

Bishop Donald Kettler felt this was a critical topic for clergy to explore.

“It’s important because pastors care for people,” he said. “They don’t only care for people’s spiritual welfare; they need to care for the whole person. This encompasses a person’s health — including their mental health. A good pastor needs to include all of this in the pastoral care they provide. We’ve given a lot of attention to the spiritual side of health and wellness, but not always the physical, mental and emotional sides of health.

“Addressing the issues of mental health and suicide awareness is important because priests are dealing with these issues in their parishes more often than people may think. A learning opportunity like this benefits the priests personally as well, so they can better take care of themselves, too,” Bishop Kettler said.

The day included a virtual presentation from Roeder, Bishop Dolan and Deacon Shoener, all of whom have experienced suicide in their families. Each attendee received a copy of the book “Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders.”

“[It is our hope to] train sensitivities around mental health and suicide issues in order to have better informed pastoral responses,” Father Herzing said. “This is one of those topics which always affects us, but COVID has created extra stress. These issues also require pastoral sensitivity, and it seems good to talk about them at a time we ourselves may be experiencing increased pressures.”

“It’s a difficult challenge to minister to a family going through a suicide,” Bishop Kettler added. “The better our priests are prepared to address these tragic situations by providing care, comfort and an opportunity for healing, the better their ministry will be.”

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the associate editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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