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A Light Shines on the Darkness of Mental Health


By Marcus Cabrera, Director of Life, Justice and Peace

“We do not pretend that life is all beauty. We are aware of darkness and sin, of poverty and pain. But we know Jesus has conquered sin and passed through his own pain to the glory of the Resurrection. And we live in the light of his Paschal Mystery – the mystery of his Death and Resurrection. ‘We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!’” St. Pope John Paul II gave these powerful – and perhaps prophetic – words in his Angelus in 1986. 

Barbara Zahner has been singing “Alleluia” to our brothers and sisters in the darkness and pain of mental illness since 2015, when she first learned of a fellow parishioner who, as Barbara says, “died by despair.”  

“I felt like a cannonball had gone through me,” Barbara recounts. From this death, the Mental Health Ministry Network arose under Barbara’s leadership. “Our goal was to educate, advocate, and accompany those affected by mental illness. We organized parish presentations, workshops, and distributed educational material from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Santa Clara County.” She created the network to serve only a handful of parishes in the Diocese of San Jose. 

But, four years later, in 2019, Barbara started serving on the Diocesan Committee for Mental Health in the Office of Life, Justice, and Peace. This committee partners with NAMI Santa Clara, the Santa Clara Behavioral Health Department, the Santa Clara Department for Education, and the HEARD Alliance – all to raise awareness about mental health and to make resources available to all San Jose parishes. 

We all know that dioceses across the country champion a variety of pressing justice issues. Upon arriving in San Jose, I immediately wanted to help those who no longer hear our Easter song. Even today, I find it ironic that in the valley of technology and hyper-connectivity, the crushing loneliness and despair can also make Silicon Valley into the “Dark Valley.” It is especially crucial for us in San Jose to sing “Alleluia” to those in despair.

The Diocesan Committee for Mental Health has empowered those wishing to make a difference in their parishes. St. Francis of Assisi, through its mental health ministry, called 3Gen+, hosts a variety of mental health events, including an intensive 2-day workshop in partnership with the University of San Diego (USD) and a showing of the movie, Angst, to a standing-room-only parish hall. St. Francis of Assisi was the only house of worship in California to receive a grant from USD for mental health projects. It used the grant to host Deacon Ed Shoener, from the Institute for Catholic Mental Health Ministry, to host the very intensive 2-day training on Mental Health 101. The showing of Angst – an artfully produced showcasing of teenage mental anxiety – was then followed with a panel of certified mental health professionals. Barbara will be the first to say that Fr. Matthew Stanley’s support has been paramount to the success of 3Gen+ and mental health ministries.

Pastors, pastoral associates, and parish staff members from St. Lucy’s Santa Teresa, Sacred Heart, St. Simon, St. Nicholas & St. William, and St. Cyprian have all held meetings with the Diocesan Committee for Mental Health, hoping to institute an increase in mental health resources. 

I’m truly proud of the efforts made by our parishes to address mental health issues in our community, and I know I’m not the only one. NAMI Santa Clara has recognized these efforts as well and is set to honor St. Francis of Assisi and Santa Teresa parishes with awards at Good Samaritan Hospital for their outstanding work in mental health awareness. Cindy McCalmont of NAMI FaithNet said to a room of pastors of various faiths that, of all the houses of worship, the Roman Catholics of San Jose are leading the way. 

This is certainly a reason to rejoice.