The Catholic bishops of New York State have released a pastoral document on mental illness, urging Christians to show compassion for the mentally ill and to support sufficient programs for their care.

"The suffering endured by mentally ill persons is a most difficult cross to bear, as is the sense of powerlessness felt by their families and loved ones," the Feb. 4 document said. "As the Psalmist called on God to deliver him from affliction and distress, so, too, does the person with mental illness cry out for healing."

"Our Judeo-Christian tradition calls us to be witnesses of God's love and mercy and to be instruments of hope for these individuals."

The pastoral statement, titled "For I Am Lonely and Afflicted," said that people with mental illness are often "stigmatized, ostracized and alone."

According to the bishops, about 25 percent of U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness each year, while more than 13 million Americans live with a serious mental illness. About 20 percent of youth have severe mental disorders each year.

An individual's mental illness directly impacts family as well, the bishops noted.

They cited the witness of Jesus Christ as the best example of how to respond to those with mental illness.

"Time and again throughout the New Testament, we encounter our Lord's mercy toward this population. The curing of this affliction in men, women and children was a central part of Jesus' healing ministry," they said. "Always, we saw Him engage these individuals in the same way he would engage anyone else, with tenderness. We are called to do no less."

The bishops urged the rejection of "the twin temptations of stereotype and fear" that can cause people to see the mentally ill as "something other than children of God, made in His image and likeness, deserving of our love and respect."

Assumptions that the mentally ill are violent ignore the fact that the seriously mentally ill commit less than 5 percent of violent acts each year, they said. In fact, those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence and sexual abuse. Yet fear of violence helps perpetuate a stigma that threatens public support for "a community-based model of treatment."

At the same time, the bishops voiced solidarity with those who have been victimized by violence, especially violence perpetrated by the mentally ill. They said firearms should be kept away from mentally ill and all violence-prone individuals.

Had violent mentally ill offenders received effective treatment, they said, "many of these tragedies may well have been avoided."

The bishops reaffirmed the New York State Catholic Conference's mental health policy recommendations, which have been in place for nearly 35 years. These policy suggestions include: a public-private partnership to provide services for the mentally ill; education of Catholics on the needs of the mentally ill; the development of "attitudes of acceptance and compassion;" integration of people with emotional problems into the community; and a focus on intervention and prevention programs.

In their latest document, the bishops reaffirmed the need for pastors, chaplains, religious education directors, Catholic school principals and others in Church leadership to welcome those afflicted with mental illness and to integrate them into church life "to the fullest extent possible."

They also called on all Catholics to be welcoming toward the mentally ill and ask themselves whether they have "always been as charitable as can be" in encountering such persons.

They asked people who have shunned "those who are different" or have not been open to residential housing or community mental health centers in their neighborhoods to consider "the example of Jesus given to us in the Gospels, repent for when we have failed, and resolve going forward to mirror His love and mercy for all God's children."

The New York bishops concluded their statement by calling for more focus on the care and treatment of the mentally ill.

"Treatment does work, and it is our fervent prayer that as our state explores new models of care, we can come to live in a society where those who suffer from mental illness can get the help they so desperately need, for their own peace and for the peace and safety of all," they said.

Policy recommendations from the New York State Catholic Conference were issued after consultation with the New York Council of Catholic Charities Directors' Behavioral Health Committee.

The conference has endorsed changes to mental health reporting requirements so that they are less likely to discourage individuals from getting help out of fear of being reported. Records of mental health hospitalization should also be expunged sooner than five years, the group said, as this could also be a barrier to people seeking treatment.

The conference advocated increases in community-based mental health services, stressing the need for "adequate community resources" in the face of state plans to consolidate and downsize psychiatric hospitals and mental health services.

In addition, the conference urged better services for the mentally ill who are in the criminal justice system, saying this would minimize unnecessary incarceration and help the mentally ill in prison. The group also proposed the addition of specially trained police officers to law enforcement agencies, saying this would decrease the need to use force and help lower arrest rates.