Mass for Traveller Mental Health Day

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Homily notes of  Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin

Saint Peter’s Church, Phibsborough, 8 October 2020

            “There is a growing awareness overall in Ireland of the challenge of addressing mental health issues.  This includes an awareness of how the current pandemic and the restrictions on human interaction inevitably affect people’s mental health.

This growing awareness is something positive as it forces all of us to realise the importance of our own mental health and the need to address mental health issues with the same sense of urgency and normality as any other health issue.

I use the word urgency but I have to stress immediately that urgency does not mean a panic reaction that would cause even greater stress and anxiety.  Looking after one’s mental health should be as natural as caring for any health dimension in our lives.  Health is not just about illness but about a broad enhancement of the person that I am.

However, addressing our health needs is never simple.  I suppose it is natural at my age that I become more anxious and fearful about illness.  I realise that my life is entering a final phase and that I have to face the unknowns of dying.  My faith gives me a firm hope that death is not the end, but it does not remove the fear of dying and what that involves.

The special challenge of mental health is that it is not easy for the person with mental health issues to recognise the symptoms.  The temptation is to try to keep going not knowing exactly what is happening to me.  My awareness is weakened by stress and by a growing lack of self-worth and a fear of stigma that can easily tempt me to keep going hoping that all will go away, when in fact keeping going in that sense is only leading slowly down a one way street of deeper dejection.

Mental health issues are harder to identify and I can easily begin to think that it is all going on just in my own imagination. The sad fact is that when we gloss over mental health problems we are retreating into the wrong type of imagination, an imagination that drags us deeper and deeper into isolation, anxiety, and deep pain and into a paralysing inability to address our problems.

That is why a greater awareness of mental health issues in society is a positive thing.  The only way in which we can come out of the loneliness and isolation and pain of mental health problems is to recognise them and to be able to talk about them and creating a space where it is possible to talk.

This initiative Traveller Mental Health Day is vital for the members of the traveller community and for the flourishing of that community.  There are statistics that indicate how the prevalence of mental health problems in the traveling community is very high. At this Mass, I do not wish to look in gloom at those statistics.  I would prefer to focus on people, men and women, young and old, settled or still on the move.  Our message must be one of hope.  There are ways out.  Services are vailable. We can all help.  Health and hope can be restored.

The readings of our Mass are about a faith that generates care and hope.  The Lord is my Shepherd.  The Lord is the Shepherd who is there when we find ourselves in the valley of darkness.  The shepherd Lord reminds us that we can be carried from the valley of darkness into pastures that are fresh and restful.  He opens for us places of comfort where we feel surrounded by goodness and kindness. No one is beyond hope.

As a Christian community, we are driven by that conviction, as we heard of in the first reading, that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Our mission as a traveller Christian community must be to create the space where people can feel the tender embrace of the love of God and where we ourselves bring that love concretely to those who are trapped in the burden of hopelessness.

I remember talking to a friend who had returned back to everyday life after a serious bout of depression.  I asked him what it was like and I will always remember his reply: “all I can say is that I would not wish anyone to find themselves in the state of darkness and anguish that I had been in”.  He had been in the valley of darkness, but he had been helped back now a different person, with a unique sensitivity to the suffering of others.  He had rediscovered in himself the wonderful person that God created him to be.   Hope restores.

The Gospel reminds us how easy it can be to become trapped in a culture where we begin to worry and fret about so many things that we end up failing to hold on to what is essential.   We can be trapped into believing that we can attain happiness just through doing things and acquiring things. It is not an easy world to feel a loser in the consumerist rat race.

My prayer is that this National Traveller Mental Health Day will create an awareness not just about statistics on Traveller Mental Health, but of the fact that the roots of hope can be rediscovered.  My prayer is that we can build a society that is there to reach out, not in judgement or prejudice or stigma.   We must come to know that accompanying into light and hope men and women who have suffered the valley of darkness, is to experience something of the joy of God himself to see his creatures restored to what he created them to be.