Kenna and Pat Millea teamed up for the first two keynote addresses at the 61st annual Fall Conference. The couple, a therapist and youth minister, work together to promote mental and spiritual wellness to organizations and individuals. (Catholic Herald photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Equipping educators with strategies for coping with classroom behaviors – while also helping them maintain their own emotional and psychological wellbeing – was the objective of the 61st annual Fall Conference on Friday, Oct. 27, at St. Joseph, Rice Lake.

The daylong event featured presenters Pat and Kenna Millea, a youth minister with a master’s degree in theology and a marriage and family therapist, respectively, and Ashley Cermak, a former youth minister and teacher who is now a therapist.

Following a 9 a.m. Mass with Bishop James P. Powers, the Milleas, founders of the Martin Center for Integration, gave two talks to the assembly of Catholic school teachers, catechists, clergy, diocesan employees and parish staff.

“Mass this morning gave me goosebumps,” said Peggy Schoenfuss, superintendent of Catholic schools, who introduced the couple. Calling it a “true gift to experience God alive,” she acknowledged this year has been a “tough go” for schools – more than 40 new teachers, with fewer than 200 total among the diocese’s 14 schools – plus with more mental health issues and behaviors in the classrooms post-COVID, many educators are struggling.

After leading off with a Hail Mary, Schoenfuss acknowledged “times are changing,” introduced the Milleas and expressed her hope that they would “help us center ourselves.”

Working together – trading off talk time throughout the first two keynotes – the couple related parenting their seven children, ages 3-12, to a teacher’s experience in the classroom.

“The hours of 5-8 p.m. are a challenge in our home,” said Pat, who jokingly compared their children at dinner to the cast of Survivor and said putting to bed their three toddler girls – “Irish triplets,” as they call their 4-year-old identical twins and 3-year-old born 360 days later – was roughly analogous to wrestling an alligator.

“We have had many conversations between the two of us … about how to manage those hours, night after night,” he added. The experience sometimes leads to so much stress, conflict and anxiety that they can start to see each other as the enemy “and not as the teammate, not as the partner,” so the couple has had many conversations strategizing about their approach to the dinner and bedtime routine as their children pass through different ages and stages.

“All of you have children – many of them you only see from the hours of 7 to 3 during the day,” he commented. “I … would guess there are moments of the day where you feel kind of like we do between 5 and 8 o’clock at night.” Addressing teachers, he asked how they manage those situations, how they help their students while also being attentive to their own emotional and psychological well-being.

A lot has changed in the past 10-20 years,” Pat affirmed. Promising that the day would include discussion of those changes, he introduced himself and his wife, Kenna, and their work in promoting spiritual and mental wellness at the Twin Cities-based Martin Center for Integration.

Depending on where you work, you can find a million stats on mental health, he observed. Statistically, one in five U.S. adults is dealing with some form of mental illness – so, 20 percent of people in the church, parents of students, etc., “which means that we are dealing constantly with interactions with people that are struggling with their own mental health.” The second statistic he cited was a Pew Research study showing almost all middle schoolers and high schoolers think mental health is a either a major or minor problem.

Giving teachers practical tools and resources, for both themselves and their students, was the Milleas’ overall goal; the first keynotes focused on ideas and framework, while Cermak’s afternoon session included more practical application.

Switching off with her husband, Kenna drew a parallel between mental health and physical health. Both are a gift, she said, something given by us to God to be stewarded, although the term “mental health” has a stigma attached and is generally perceived as negative, while physical health is not.

She defined “mental health” as using the mind and body to accurately perceive reality; being able to respond to stressors and changes; and being in loving relationship with God, self and others. In response to the claim that the pandemic generated a lot of mental illness and mental disorders, Kenna felt COVID instead highlighted a deficit – as a society, many of us didn’t have tools and skills to adapt when huge stressors surfaced.

Lots of things influence mental health, she said. Natural biological makeup, adverse childhood experiences, things outside people’s controls, differences in social supports, traumas, griefs and losses and more.

One of the cornerstone quotes at the Martin Center is St. Iranaeus’ “The glory of God is man fully alive.” She offered two truths. First, we are made in the likeness of God, she said. Mental distress, disorder or illness, “often has to do with the violation of that dignity.” There are ways in which we receive messages that eat away at – make us question – the truth she believes is inside each of us, and the quandary becomes how to restore mental health, communicate, manage emotions, and uphold the dignity of others.

The second truth is, “we are made for relationship.” But, she added, “It is hard to bring two broken, sinful, imperfect people together in harmonious relationship.”

Illustrating Thomas Aquinas’ faculties of the human person, divided into quadrants with senses and emotions below (which we share with animals), and intellect and will above (which we share with angels), Kenna said, “The important thing is … that we are called to bring these senses and emotions … under the intellect and the will.” Using the example of toddlers living purely on senses and emotions, she asked, “How do we care for our students in an eternal way?” When someone is struggling with sensory processing and overload, “How do I encourage you toward developing intellect and will?”

Despite our best intentions, Pat continued, “We will never … solve depression in the world. We will never get rid of all the anxiety.” As fallen people, we will never solve all our problems. “The call for every human, particularly those of us who are called by God to this kind of work is to ask, how do we lead others to love in the midst of those difficulties?”

Using the extreme of people who ignore their emotions entirely vs. those who can only function in “safe spaces,” he observed, “There’s this thing about culture – we are really good at bifurcation – really good at going to extremes in two opposite directions.” But, he added, “the both/and is where Catholicism lies.” Balancing emotions and intellect would look something like, “I can have empathy for my feelings of anxiety and distress and sadness …. I can understand why I feel sad about this,” but then ask the Holy Spirit’s help to overcome it – not dismissing a feeling or experience, but also not letting emotions “drive the car.”

The fear of listening to emotions, Kenna added, is sometimes that it’s a big can of snakes, and once they escape, you won’t get them back in – but empathy usually helps to deflate some of the overblown emotions.

Pat, looking at some of the ways culture and church get mental health wrong, spoke of the Christian temptation of hyperspiritualizing – diminishing the role our brains and bodies have in mental health and associating mental wellness with only our souls. “Things like, ‘we just need more faith,’” he added, and said he’s talked to many people who have gone through horrendous trauma, and in the wake of that, many were told by well-meaning Catholic clergy and laity that they just “need to go to adoration.”

Pat believes this is a matter of ignorance. “Please, please, please go to adoration,” he said. “All the time. The more the better.” Mass, the rosary, etc., “all of these things are good.” And on top of that, he added, sometimes our bodies and our brains need more than faith can offer.

Closer to the truth is the idea that mental health struggles result from really complex causes – people are an integration of soul, mind and body. We address mental health struggles by being attentive to the mind, the body (good, Christian self-care) and caring for our soul.

Kenna, addressing Aquinas’ quadrants, said the intellect has to be over emotions in order that the will can be engaged and properly used. In God becoming man, he showed us this. When intellect is divorced from emotions, we can go into robot mode – that can be a coping strategy for a moment, but “we don’t want to live there.”

Teenagers, meanwhile, put emotions over the intellect. We must acknowledge that emotions are useful, but as a piece of information our well-formed intellect can use. A huge part of today, she concluded, will be sharing your well-formed intellects with students whose brains are not yet fully developed.