Kenna Millea, licensed marriage and family therapist, responds to a question during the March 15 mental health workshop held at St. Joseph’s Church in Rice Lake. Kenna co-presented the workshop with Pat Millea, a youth minister and her husband. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

On Tuesday, March 15, at St. Joseph’s Church in Rice Lake, Pat and Kenna Millea presented a workshop on mental health in the context of youth ministry.

Pat, a youth minister and speaker, with his wife Kenna, a licensed marriage and family therapist, presented sessions on the current landscape of the topic with an overview of Christian anthropology and the crossover between mental health and the spiritual life. The Twin Cities-based couple then offered principles of pastoral boundaries and practical responses.

A handout clarified that the information was not for diagnostic or treatment purposes and was intended to be training and formation for participants.

While Kenna’s education and professional experience provided a psychological parameter, Pat’s studies and ministry experience offered a complementary perspective that sought to inform and inspire clergy, school and ministry leadership.


“This is for all of us – this is for what we do as a church,” Pat said. Using information provided by Mental Health America and 2017 surveys conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Pew Research, Millea confirmed that 96 percent of American teens acknowledge anxiety and depression are a problem, with 70 percent of them calling it a major one.

Numbers show females are more susceptible than males to mental health challenges, and academic and social pressures ranked as top causes.

Millea accentuated that the numbers accurately described the landscape by asking his audience to share what words come to mind hearing the phrase “mental health.”

After he’d been given the words “crazy,” “depression,” “anxiety,” “fear,” “despair” and “loneliness,” Millea contrasted those connotations with the positive words that would likely have been offered to describe physical health.

The idea of restoring a sense of mental health “As something given to us by God,” Kenna asserted, “Is a big deal for us as church.”

The pair also reviewed basic brain science that confirms 25 years old is the average age for mental maturity to develop, backed up by insurance companies’ and rental car agencies’ pricing and policies. They iterated the importance of community and relationships as these young people “need to borrow our brains” to make good decisions through all the actions and choices being navigated in the teen and young adult years.

With another reminder that workshop participants’ “job as faith leaders is to model, not professionally assess,” Kenna broadened the landscape to include a description of integration between attuned emotions and an informed intellect.

She went on to define the difference between mental health emergencies, crises and struggles. An “emergency” is an imminent or life-threatening situation, for themselves or another person, and requires alerting appropriate authorities. A “crisis” is defined as a risk to themselves or others and inability to maintain daily life function, while “struggles” acknowledges circumstances and situations in which they need and want help and tools.

“This is where relational ministry shines,” Pat chimed in, referring to the accompaniment that ministers and teachers can offer.

Christian Anthropology

Kenna summarized the second topic, Christian anthropology or “understanding of the human person,” as stemming from one truth with two consequential realities. The truth: You are made in the image and likeness of God; you are a beloved son or daughter of God. From that truth stems two realities; first, you have an inherent worth and dignity; and second, that dignity has sometimes been violated.

She explained how no one person’s experience is ever solitary, and she spoke of the blessing she experiences in working with individuals, couples, youths and parents from that understanding of family dynamics.

With that backdrop, husband and wife accentuated the importance of integration as a restoration of wholeness and right relationship between feelings, intellect and will, clarifying that feelings are not to be judged good or bad but seen as important pieces of information. The goal is for feelings to be known and correctly discerned by the intellect in order to move a person toward good choices and actions.

The two extreme manifestations of disintegration are, first, behaviors like toddler tantrums – which they quipped especially affect teens with hormones, but even adults – where the emotions are in the driver’s seat, or second, acting like a robot – where the emotions and intellect are separated and not working together.

Pat reflected further on the role of emotions.

“They are informational sign posts,” he said. “They shouldn’t drive the car, but neither should they be locked in the trunk …. Even Jesus was angry and still did not sin – what we do with the emotions is what matters.”

Kenna built on the spiritual parallel, admitting that while much of psychological science is hostile to faith, she finds it very exciting to see the truths of the human person that correlate to mental health.

A correlation of sanity and sanctity, rooted in living the present moment, is in tune with divine providence. She affirmed the goodness of mindfulness practices – not with their Buddhist goal of sublimation, but rather grounded in reality and the present with God, especially in relationship with him.

Overall, the human person should be understood and seen in and through the Creator, in order that “we can see others and ourselves the way God sees us,” Kenna said.

Pat echoed that “God knows us better than we know ourselves – he is pro-boundaries and pro-consequences of choices and actions,” as contrary as that can be in a modern sense.

Meeting place between mental and spiritual health

“Every evil in the world comes from a spiritual place,” Pat said, “But sometimes we treat those evils with material goods.”
“God has desired to be present in the struggles,” he added – not in the secular understanding of hope that either your circumstances will improve or you will get stronger, but hope as a theological virtue stemming from the truthfulness of the One who makes the promise that love will conquer all, if not in this life then in the next.

The couple presented what they called a “triangle of extremes” – “three ways to get good things wrong”:

* Diminishing mental health struggles as made up or overblown, essentially something to stop whining about and just get over;

* Exaggerating mental health challenges where everything hinges on their presence, and the person struggling is nothing more than a victim with zero accountability or choice.

* Hyper-spiritualizing mental health struggles as entirely spiritual problems that only need prayer, healing Masses and exorcisms.

Here, the Milleas highlighted the Catholic “both-and principle,” where prayer should be a starting point to connect with God who is truth itself, but inviting him to shed light on where ruptures are, how to recognize maladaptive strategies and replace those with healthier skills moving forward.

“Sanity and sanctity is living in reality,” Kenna affirmed.

It’s not detaching from the present to avoid pain in nothingness, she explained, but “mindfulness can bring us more present to the here and now… more connected to God’s life.”

Pastoral boundaries

Pat defined “pastoral boundaries” as “how we minister without hurting anyone” and acknowledged that when boundaries are ignored, really bad things can happen.

“If I have to move beyond my boundary, it’s a sign that I’m beyond my abilities,” he said.

These parameters are the subject of safe environment practices that have been utilized for some time, but the speaker presented them as helps, not hindrances, even though they require thought and foresight.

He spoke about the principles of being “always open and easily accessible” while transparent at the same time, as in the example of making clear in general conversations and group dynamics that youth leaders are vested in youths’ well-being, their sense of safety and confidentiality notwithstanding the responsibility of reporting if someone’s safety is at risk.

“I can be friendly but not your friend,” he said, particularly in the context of social media and one-on-one interactions.

Doing ministry in collaboration with others bridged the principles of taking care of one’s own health and boundaries; remembering that life is bigger than ministry, as important as that ministry is; that one cannot give what they don’t have; and the importance of collaboration from a practical standpoint as well as the sense that God works through everyone, his goodness and wisdom complete in the combination of gifts and resources of a school or parish leadership team.

Kenna explained boundaries with images of fences and gardens.

“There are parts that I’m accountable for, but I’m also accountable for staying in my space – knowing where I end and they begin,” she said, while recognizing how nebulous those lines can get when codependency and enmeshment play factors.

Revisiting the “both-and” concept, Kenna shared that one extreme is acting as if there is no fence, but not defaulting to the other extreme of a 10-foot cinder-block wall.

She added that it has to start with a personal boundaries assessment and a potential need for growth because if boundaries are not practiced personally, it can be very hard “to turn them on in ministry.”

Kenna’s final advice in that realm was on the importance of collegial accountability to seek support and share wisdom, for the good of leaders as well as youths.

Practical Dos and Don’ts

* Do be clear that you will do whatever you can to help, but don’t promise to do whatever it takes, because there are some things you simply cannot do.

* Don’t say you know exactly how the other person feels. Do say you can’t imagine what they’re going through, and let them know you are listening.

* Don’t give mental health advice, such as how to deal with the person’s own inner workings. Do refer them to a sound mental health provider. They suggested a list should be compiled and made available.

* Don’t gang up on a youth’s parents/mentors. Do strengthen and support their immediate relationships; empathize and help them seek communication and reconciliation.

* Don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you.” Do actually pray for them – use whatever reminders necessary – or ask to pray with them at that moment.

* Don’t overshare, relating the youth’s scenario to your own experience. Do empathize and then point them to appropriate resources.
* Don’t glorify or magnify mental health struggles. Do have good, frequent, open conversations about mental health – always connected to the Catholic faith and Christ’s desire for your mental health.

* Don’t assume your teens are not struggling with mental health issues. Do weave it into conversations and help normalize it as part of life; faith can inform it.

* Do have a clear strategy for mental health emergencies (call 911) and crises (involving parents and other mentors or therapists). For struggles, show the young person of their worth and value through relationship. In addition, pray with and for them and point them in the direction of other spiritual resources like the priest, sacraments and further engagement in spiritual supports. If these things don’t seem to be effective, suggest and encourage seeking out someone who can help them develop the skills and tools to effectively address mental health issues.

In conclusion, Pat recounted the story of St. Dymphna, the patron of those in need of mental healing.

“Christ is the only healer,” he said. “We are only instruments … but no matter what mental health (challenges we have) in this life, we are not defined by it.”

Suggested resources

During a question-and-answer period to end the workshop, the Milleas acknowledged the harmful effects of social media and the huge shift it has brought about in mental health challenges.

Pat called the use of technology “monstrously dangerous” and emphasized the importance of good conversations, of modeling a healthy relationship with technology and smartphones and of seeking the support of other like-minded families to be bold in going against cultural currents.

For youths grappling with questions of sexuality and gender, it was advised to always love the sinner, but also to differentiate between desires and actions and empower the young person to live chastity and remain faithful to the truth of God’s teachings while being compassionate in understanding themselves and seeking other guidance where needed. He recognized how little consolation mere talking points can offer but also highlighted the “courageous and underrated virtue of accompaniment.”

As far as authors and other resources, the speakers mentioned: Fr. Jacques Phillipe, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and Sr. Miriam James Heidland – their podcasts and YouTube videos – as well as the work of Dr. Bob Schuchts and the John Paul II Healing Center he founded.

Husband and wife both affirmed the power of prayer and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, as both the work of a catechist/minister and therapist is still limited related to the other influences in a young person’s life.

“We love, we pray,” Pat iterated. “We don’t give up, and we play the long game.”