MONTDALE – For years, faith leaders have talked about the importance of removing the stigma surrounding mental health challenges while emphasizing that those struggling with mental health are loved and valued by the church.

Two parishes in Lackawanna County are now taking action by starting a joint mental health ministry team which is providing free training and other resources.

Saint John Vianney Parish in Montdale and Saint Gregory Parish in Clarks Green recently launched an inter-parish Mental Health Ministry Team. The goal is to support each parish’s awareness of, accompaniment with, and advocacy for persons with mental health challenges and those who care for them.

More than a dozen people participated in a Mental Health First Aid Training Program at Saint John Vianney Parish in Montdale on Nov. 11, 2023.

“With this model, we are able to pool our resources in offering the ministry, and are able to serve a wider audience, including the community members outside the walls of our churches,” Jen Housel, Executive Director, Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, and parishioner of Saint John Vianney parish, said.

On Nov. 11, the two parishes held a Mental Health First Aid Training Program which taught 13 people how to recognize signs of mental health or substance use challenges in adults, offer and provide initial help, and knowledge on how to guide a person toward appropriate care if necessary.

“It was better than any of us thought it could be,” participant Ellen Aherne explained, describing the combination of small group activities and large group sessions. “I highly recommend it to any member of our diocese who has the opportunity to spend a Saturday learning how to better serve the mental health needs of their parishes.”

In addition to having people from both parishes launching the Mental Health Ministry Team, there were also attendees from Our Lady of the Snows Parish, Clarks Summit; Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish, Dickson City; and Divine Mercy Parish, Scranton.

“As a person who once taught psychiatric nursing, I gained some valuable information and practical skills,” Mary Ann Paulukonis, who serves as the Mental Health Ministry team leader at Saint Gregory Parish. “I was gratified that a couple participants decided to join our inter-parish team and a few others asked how to start a mental health ministry in their own parishes.”

Beginning the week of Jan. 8, the parishes will begin offering The Sanctuary Course for Catholics in tandem for eight weeks to explore the realities of mental health and illness, as well as the vital need for faith-based community conversations about these topics.

Statistics show one in four people will be affected by a mental health challenge at some point in their lives, yet the stigma surrounding mental illness silences many and prevents faith communities from responding compassionately and effectively.

The eight small group sessions will be held at Saint John Vianney Parish on Mondays at 6:30 p.m. and Saint Gregory Parish on Fridays at 9:00 a.m.

Interested individuals can attend one session or all eight, at either church or both locations or via Zoom. Online registration at is encouraged, but not required.

“Optimally, sessions are offered to and attended by those within the same general faith community. This allows those involved to deeply consider how their community currently responds to this issue/need and how they as a community may take action to do better,” Housel stated. “The sessions include the opportunity to learn, to pray, and to share together.”

There is no fee for the training. All costs are being covered by a Social Justice Grant from the 2023 Diocesan Annual Appeal.

“The Social Justice Grant funds allowed us to begin this mental health ministry programming on an ambitious scale and to offer multiple opportunities cost-free to those who could benefit from them,” Housel added.

“Receiving the grants had the effect of propelling us forward at a faster rate than we might otherwise have proceeded,” Paulukonis said.