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Catholic churches in Pinellas launch program to improve access to mental health services

Andy Shannon, director of campus ministry at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, was the keynote speaker at the program's launch. [Diocese of St. Petersburg]
Published May 7

SAFTEY HARBOR — The Rev. Len Piotrowski asked the congregation to pray with him about several concerns during Monday morning's Mass at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church.

There was the unnerving United Nations report that human beings are threatening 1 million species with extinction. And of more immediate and less esoteric concern, Piotrowski asked for prayers for a new church program that connects counselors to Catholics and non-Catholics struggling with issues such as anxiety, depression and addiction and with challenges involving family, children and marriage.

Later Piotrowski explained that the initiative by Espiritu Santo and nine other Central Pinellas Catholic churches had been prompted by what clergy and religious brothers and sisters had seen.

"They observed and experienced a lot of people that were struggling in their lives,'' he said. "Sometimes they were struggling with anxiety or fear. Sometimes they were struggling with grief, or the pain of loss, a divorce, family programs, problems with children or teenagers and lack of communication skills in relationships. All of those things were causing great struggles, including some that were very serious, like depression or suicide in a family.

"Certainly we can pray for them ... but more than that, we can offer them counseling. It doesn't mean it will take the place of prayer or love. We want to show that love with concrete help."

Tangible assistance is being offered by professionally trained and certified counselors, therapists and psychologists at churches or other locations. Each counselor is independent and fees and insurance may vary, according to the program's brochure. Those seeking help are able to contact counselors directly.

The program to increase access to mental health services is rooted in the vision unveiled almost a year ago by Bishop Gregory Parkes, head of Tampa Bay's almost half-million Catholics. Titled "Courageously Living the Gospel," the goal has been to encourage parishioners "to think outside the walls" of their churches to minister to families, young people and those in need

Espiritu Santo in Safety Harbor, part of the Central Pinellas Deanery — a group of parishes — is working on the new counseling services program with Our Lady of Lourdes in Dunedin, St. Matthew in Largo, St. Ignatius in Tarpon Springs, St. Luke the Evangelist in Palm Harbor and St. Cecelia, St. Brendan, Light of Christ, All Saints and St. Michael the Archangel in Clearwater.

"We want to make sure we are giving the support people need. People do seem to be carrying more and more emotional baggage these days," said the Rev. Gary Dowsey, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes.

"We just want to be a beacon of understanding and love. We want everyone to know that they are loved, whatever their needs are ... to know we're always there for them, as Christ would expect of us."

The program was launched in March at Light of Christ Church. Andy Shannon, director of campus ministry at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, was the keynote speaker.

"I did it because I want to show people that accepting ourselves allows us to love others and that means accepting our gifts and our challenges and limitations," Shannon said.

He said he encouraged those at his talk to spread the word about the counseling services and told them that he had sought help himself through the years.

"It's a challenge to open up your life and to be upfront with people,'' he said. "My part was just to be an example as someone who has benefited from this initiative, to show how therapy has benefited me to live a more whole and healthy life."

Seeking a professionally trained therapist or counselor "is not something to be frowned upon, but to be embraced," Shannon said.

Dowsey said his Dunedin parish has been offering counseling for several years to its families and school through the House of Mercy and Encouragement, a nonprofit organization founded by parishioner Dolores Mortimer. Mortimer said she opened the center to cope with her own grief. Her son, Timothy Mortimer, 22, and nephew, Michael Celidonio, 24, died in a traffic accident in 2005.

"After the boys died, it was very devastating," said Mortimer, a licensed mental health counselor. "I thought, what would I recommend for somebody in this situation, and I decided I would recommend they help other people."

She took her own advice. "There are so many out there who need help and so many people who don't have access to services," she said.

Other Pinellas County deaneries have also launched programs to help their communities. Parishes in St. Petersburg, Gulfport and St. Pete Beach will establish a Catholic Campus Ministry on the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg campus.

Congregations in Seminole, Pinellas Park, Largo and Indian Rocks are working with a St. Petersburg parish and another in Clearwater to help the homeless at Pinellas Hope.

"As Catholics, we want to serve anyone who is suffering," Piotrowski said. "What matters to us is that we are serving and we are helping and we are loving and we're making life better for everyone."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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