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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, October 4, 2002

Mental breakdown brings wisdom to priest's ministry

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion and Ethics Writer


. . .

Howell's formula

The Rev. Patrick Howell takes a five-step approach to mental health and says each has a spiritual element.

"Even medications have great spiritual benefits," Howell says. His approach:

1. Good psychiatric/medical care

2. Friends, family or some kind of support system

3. A job or meaningful work, even if it's mundane. "That's a huge thing," Howell says, adding that work provides stability.

4. Good physical conditioning. Howell goes to the gym five times a week and calls it "stress management." He's also taken up yoga.

5. Expressing your faith. "The fifth one pervades all the others," he says.

The Rev. Patrick J. Howell of Seattle has a message: Faith communities have to do a better job of reaching out to those with mental illnesses.

"One of the major things about mental illness is it disconnects us," said the Rev. David Edwards, a Methodist chaplain at the Hawai'i State Hospital who invited Howell to come to Hawai'i for a workshop on spirituality and mental health.

Like Howell, who suffered a psychotic break 27 years ago, Edwards, too, knows the territory: One of his sons suffers from bipolar disorder.

"Part of my job is to help people reconnect," the chaplain said, adding that people with mental illness disconnect from family, friends, jobs and even their faith organizations.

Within the walls of the state hospital, Edwards has heard stories of how the faith community also fell down on the job.

There's the Hawai'i patient with schizophrenia who was told by his church's deacon not to take his medications, because if you "believe," you don't need them.

And there's the woman, part of a tight-knit evangelical Christian church, who was abandoned after her hospitalization.

Howell heard such stories, too.

The Jesuit priest learned firsthand the ravages of mental illness in 1975. He'd come to Hawai'i to direct a spiritual retreat. On a side trip to Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, right off the plane and without preparation, Howell was rushed door-to-door to bless patients, bringing him face to face with the deformities with which Hansen's disease burdens its sufferers.

The unexpected intensity of those images would haunt him later that sleepless night — and later that year, during his 40-day stay as an inpatient in a psych ward at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C.

"We never did finger the precise reason" for his psychotic break, writes Howell in his book, "Reducing the Storm to a Whisper: The Story of a Breakdown," though the Moloka'i trip and pressures from his job as then-principal of a high school played a part.

"There was no one single factor," he said from Seattle University, where he is dean of the School of Theology. "The accumulated intensity of experiences and repressed emotions led to the eruption."

At one point in his breakdown, he wasn't sure if he was in the shower or the Sea of Galilee. Luckily, a Jesuit psychologist who happened to be visiting recognized it as a psychotic episode and advised Howell's friends not to mess with amateurs, but get help right away.

Howell willingly revisits that dark time in his life and the eight-year journey back to mental health as part of his ministry, which includes bringing together the faith community with people suffering from mental illness.

Don't call them "the mentally ill" to Howell. He prefers the term "people who happen to have mental illness."

"If someone has a heart attack, we don't describe them as cardiacs," he said.

These days, Howell feels a kinship with the sufferers of Kalaupapa. Like the tax collectors and prostitutes of the Bible, those with mental illness are outcasts. He works to bypass the social stigmas and restore a person to his community.

"Part of healing comes with addressing the whole person," he said. "Families are crucial. They used to be blamed, but they're one of the biggest resources."

The faith community has a big role to play, too.

Three years ago, for example, he was attending Mass at St. James Cathedral in Seattle when a fellow came in, disheveled, bewildered and stressed.

"I could tell something was going to happen," he recalled. "Sure enough, when the priest announced the Gospel, this person got up and yelled 'Jesus saves!'"

The congregation was a bit sleepy at this point, Howell recounts with a laugh.

"The usher came up and gently led him away," he said. "It was great. Even better, then everybody was awake to hear the Gospel."

That doesn't mean coping is easy, he said. Oftentimes, people with mental illness are hard to deal with.

"I don't always like to do it," Howell admitted. "Frankly, I don't see how families do it every day."

But neither were the outcasts of Jesus' day easy to be around, he added. The rewards, however, are worth the costs. Howell came out the other end of his experience a better person — one who now practices self-care.

One exercise he and his fellow psych-ward patients had to do was to write in one column all the activities they liked to do. His filled up with all sorts of activities. Reading. Making up stories for his nieces and nephews. Gardening. Playing bridge. Hiking.

Then, in the second column, they were asked to write when the last time was they did these activities. He realized it had been 18 months since he'd seen his nieces, and three years since he had last played bridge.

"Now, I have a garden in back," he said. "I go hiking in the Cascades."

And his prayer life has become much more immediate and grounded — "less heady, more wordless," said the priest, who belongs to an order well-known for its intellectual bent.

The spiritual aspect of healing is key, too: "You get to a certain point of health, you don't get activated as a human being without some sense of purpose." And Howell relishes the wisdom borne of suffering.

He flashed back on a moment that occurred about the third week into his hospitalization, when at a weekly meeting with the patients to determine little chores, such as cleaning up the dishes or picking up the towels, he found himself surveying the group.

There were a dozen patients. One had tried to commit suicide. Another was bipolar and an alcoholic, and so on.

"I said to myself, 'I'm going to be the best patient here.'"

Then, on the phone, he laughs at his own perfectionism: When it gets bad, "I remind myself, 'You're the best patient in the psych ward.'"