“I was trying to fix myself and as time went on, I realized that I couldn't fix myself while I was still on the job, so to speak.”
Conley sought the counsel of some of his friends, including Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City; Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico; Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix; and Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha.
With the help of these friends, Conley presented his case before the U.S. Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, during a private meeting at the November 2019 assembly of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
“And the nuncio said, ‘Well, I think you need some time off to get some professional help.’”
Until then, Conley had not even considered that a leave of absence was possible for a bishop.
“I was called by God to be a successor of the Apostles, we don't have any record of the Apostles taking time off,” Conley said. “So I just didn't think that a bishop could do that. And that somehow, that would be a sign of weakness or failure, or not being able to fulfill (my) duties. When in reality, we are body and soul. Grace builds upon nature. And so we need to take care of our physical and mental wellbeing in order to be good at whatever we're doing.”
Conley said Pierre was very supportive, and told him to obtain a doctor’s note that could be sent along with the request to Pope Francis, since bishops are under obedience to the Holy Father.
By December 2019, Conley’s leave had been approved. On December 13, he announced the leave to his diocese. In the announcement, Conley said he had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and that he was taking a mental health leave.
“I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to be truthful about why I was leaving. If I'm going to leave, that's a big deal. And I didn't want to keep that a secret and leave it to people to speculate what (the reason for leaving) was,” he said.
Conley said he was overwhelmed by the positive and supportive response.
“I received a lot of letters and cards and notes, not only from people who I knew and who were writing to support me, but from people I didn't even know, who themselves had struggled with some mental health issue, or (a relative) or some friend of theirs had,” he said.
(Story continues below)
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“And they were so grateful to me for being so open about it and transparent. They thanked me for talking about it, because of the stigma that's surrounding mental illness,” he said. “And that was helpful for me, comforting for me to know that I wasn't the only one, and that I wasn't alone in this.”
Shortly after the announcement, Conley left to stay in Phoenix, where he was able to receive treatment from a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and medical doctors, as well as spiritual direction.
Three months later, the rest of the world went on a sort of leave of absence as well, as the coronavirus pandemic caused national and global shutdowns. It made Conley’s recovery more difficult, he said.
“That didn't help...the isolation, when I was down in Phoenix,” he said. He had a few good friends, particularly a young family, who were very helpful, he added. The couple were both former students of his at the University of Dallas, and they now have five kids, and would frequently invite Conley to their house.
“But it was just a strain, then, to see how the whole pandemic played out,” Conley said.
Conley said it was important that he had Catholic counselors and doctors to work with throughout his treatment, so that they were all on the same page about how his faith was a part of his recovery.