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home : features : parish life

10/19/2017 9:00:00 AM
ST. PIUS, LOUDONVILLE
Parish supports people with mental illness
Every month, Sue Ungerer sends out reminders about upcoming meetings of the mental health support group at St. Pius X parish in Loudonville.

"I say, 'If you're having a hard time, come,'" she told The Evangelist.

"Sometimes, they don't come because they're having a hard time."

Mrs. Ungerer knows the feeling. For a long time, she struggled with clinical depression.

"It's very hard to understand if you haven't been through it. I've gotten the right help, but it took a number of years," she said.

After her depression lifted, Mrs. Ungerer attended courses through NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, on peer support and help for families. Sharing her experience was beneficial, she said.

In talking with her pastor, Rev. James Walsh, Mrs. Ungerer realized that a priest is often the first person a parishioner will contact if he or she is struggling with mental illness. She saw that there was a need for a parish support group -- and decided to start one.

"I've come a long way," she remarked. "You're given what you're given for a reason. This is my calling: to help other people with mental illness."

The Peer-to-Peer support group at St. Pius meets monthly, usually on the first Wednesday of the month, from 6-7:30 p.m. Eight or nine people attend each meeting, sharing how the past month went for them, how they're doing now and what concerns they have.

Mrs. Ungerer facilitates the group and brings information to share, primarily from magazines like BP (for bipolar disorder) and Esperanza (which focuses on anxiety and depression). Recently, she encouraged people to attend a NAMI conference that's coming up Nov. 10-12 at The Desmond Hotel and Conference Center in Albany (see www.naminys.org).

"Just letting people talk is cathartic," she said. Though some people may balk at taking medication, "I encourage them, if they're having a hard time, to check in with their doctor."

She also talks about exercise, which can be helpful when dealing with mental illness, and the change of seasons, which can be a struggle.

The trend for celebrities to speak openly about their experiences with mental illness is helping to reduce the stigma a bit, she added.

"The people [who attend the group] are so appreciative," Mrs. Ungerer said. "It's a great outlet for them, because sometimes they're reluctant to talk to family and friends."

Though the support group is intended for people who have mental illness, she has also organized sessions at St. Pius for family members. At one gathering, the head psychiatrist from Albany Medical Center was the guest speaker.

"A lot of it is [about] educating the public on mental illness," Mrs. Ungerer said. She wishes there was more openness about it: "If you had diabetes, if you had any other illness, you would share that."

In chatting with fellow parishioners, there have been times when people remarked, "How's that [support group] going? It must be really difficult."

It's not, Mrs. Ungerer replies. Mental illness has a biological basis like any other illness; a supportive family and financial stability hadn't stopped her from having clinical depression.

Mrs. Ungerer is glad to be leading the support group at St. Pius. It's good, she said, for other members to hear her story, learn how common mental illnesses are and see that she's functioning well now.

"I've come a long way," she repeated.

(The next meetings of the St. Pius parish Peer-to-Peer support group will be Nov. 1 and Dec. 6. To learn more, email susieungerer@gmail.com.)





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