Bishop urges W.Va. to fight addiction, mental illness

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's Catholic bishop is calling on the state of West Virginia to devote more attention and money to help people struggling with addiction and mental illness.

On Friday, the Most Rev. Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Catholic diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, will release a pastoral letter called "Hearts Made Whole." The document encourages West Virginia to better fund prevention and treatment, and calls for reducing the stigma of addiction and mental illness.

"As people of faith, we should be willing to contribute materially to proven treatments for the chemically dependent and for the mentally ill," Bransfield wrote in the letter. "We should also give careful attention to the healthiness of where we live, work, play, and pray."

Addiction and mental illness have "penetrated fabrics of our society to such great depths," Bransfield said in an interview Tuesday.

"It's not just West Virginia," he said. "American society has to deal with this."

In a pastoral letter, he explained, a Catholic bishop highlights problems affecting everyday people. It's a call for communities talk openly about an issue and take action.

The new letter expands on Bransfield's 2006 pastoral letter, "A Church that Heals," which focused on West Virginians' poor health.

Since then, Bransfield wrote, many have worked quietly behind the scenes to make West Virginia healthier. Behavioral health, though, is an "area where we, as a state, remain 'far from a place of health.'"

West Virginia has the nation's highest rate of drug overdose deaths. In 2009, the National Alliance on Mental Illness gave the state an F grade for its response to serious mental illness.

Church officials met with people throughout the state to develop the letter. Participants in listening sessions included recovering addicts, clergy, parishioners, social workers and correctional officers.

"So many times, instead of prevention, instead of treatment, people dealing with these types of issues end up in prison," said Deacon Todd Garland, who directs social ministries for the diocese.

While addiction affects both rich and poor people, Bransfield said, it is much harder for the poor to get help.

"When you get into poorer areas, it gets worse because these people don't have the resources or the services to fight back," he said. "There's a lot of people out there that want help. They don't have the choices a lot of our society has."

There are both theological and pragmatic reasons to spend money on prevention and treatment of behavioral health problems, the bishop said.

He pointed to the parable of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help an injured man after others ignored him.

"A church that heals, that mends the hearts of our brothers and sisters living with behavioral health issues," he wrote in the letter, "becomes for them the Good Samaritan and makes a real investment of compassion and mercy in their care and recovery."

On a practical level, Bransfield said Tuesday, investment now can help stop worsening of social problems.

"You allow for the dissolution of your society, you're responsible," he said. "The environment you're living in -- the neighborhood you're living in, the city you're living in -- could be deteriorating because you want to save money."

Funding is a matter for state lawmakers, but communities and individuals can also help, said the Rev. Brian O'Donnell, executive secretary of the Catholic Conference of West Virginia.

"There are things you can do in your parish, in your school, to be a Good Samaritan," he said.

Bransfield will formally release the letter Friday, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Catholic Church's World Day of the Sick.

The bishop also discussed the letter Monday evening at a reception for legislators and other officials.

Reach Alison Knezevich at or 304-348-1240.