Catholic Charities answering the call as more people reach out for mental health support


Across the nation, the demand for mental health services is skyrocketing. Northeast Nebraska is no exception. While it is troubling that so many people are struggling with their mental health, the rise in demand may signal a positive trend.

“It is a great comfort knowing that if I’m meeting with someone or a parishioner is coming to me, asking for help, they recognize that they need help,” Father Mike Eckley, pastor of Saint Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha, said.

Since 1949, National Health Awareness Month has been observed in May. While there is still a stigma associated with mental health, Jenna Whitaker, director of the school mental health program at Catholic Charities of Omaha, believes things are changing.

“I feel the stigma around mental health is lessening, thanks in large part to people’s willingness to talk about it,” she said. “There’s an increasing understanding and acceptance that mental health does not pick and choose who it impacts or how it impacts. It transcends gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc.”

There is more good news, particularly in Nebraska. A recent report on mental health in the United States ranked Nebraska as the best state for mental health. When compiling its rankings for the 2023 Best States for Mental Health Report, Soliant Health, which provides specialized healthcare staffing in the United States, factored in things like access to mental health services, frequency of “bad mental health days,” and suicide rates.

Of course, much more work needs to be done. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported that in the last year, approximately 18,000 Nebraskans reached out to the 988 mental health crisis line, which was implemented in 2022. There were several other resources to which people also turned to for help. Sadly, many others likely never reached out for help.

Over 20% of American adults (more than 50 million) experience some degree of mental illness every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and one in six kids ages six to 17 in the U.S. experience a mental health disorder. Suicide remains the second-leading cause of death among all U.S. children ages 10 to 14.

Whitaker believes that while those statistics can be daunting, more people reaching out for help is good because it also signals a growing willingness for people to admit they need help. “In other words, more people are seeking mental health services because they now embrace the idea that it’s acceptable to do so.”

There are a lot of different reasons for the rise in the demand for mental health services, including “social isolation, traumatic events, and the impact of technology and social media on our overall well-being. And major world events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, left an impact on our mental health that will be felt for years to come,” Whitaker said.

For Catholics suffering from mental health issues, reaching out often starts with talking to their parish priest.

Father Mike Eckley believes this is a good thing because faith is a critical part of any healing process – physical or mental. However, he also knows that he can’t provide the kind of help every person needs.

“If someone came to me and said, ‘I broke my arm,’ I’m not going to say, ‘Well, pray about it and it’ll heal.’” Eckley said. “I will say, ‘Pray for healing and also go see a doctor.’ In the same way, we pray for the healing of someone experiencing mental health issues, but we also make sure that they have that professional care that they need to bring about the healing they desire.”

It is important to Father Eckley that when he sends someone somewhere for mental health services, it reflects that person’s faith.

That is where Catholic Charities Behavioral Health Services comes in.

“If it’s beyond my capability as a pastor doing some pastoral counseling or some spiritual direction, I have a trusted resource that I can send them to,” he said. “I know that if I send them to Catholic Charities, to a counselor there, it’s going to be a counselor that’s trained and professional in being able to bring about healing with mental health issues, but also someone who’s going to respect their faith, respect their spiritual life, the importance of prayer and sacraments as part of their life, and respect the vows and commitments that they have made in their life.”

Whitaker understands how important it is for adults and students to be able to bring their whole selves to counseling.

“It’s undeniable that people turn to their faith for comfort and guidance, so as a therapist, my ability to incorporate my faith is another beneficial tool my clients can use to support their emotional and mental health,” she said.

Whitaker said the Catholic Charities behavior health program is designed to meet the needs of clients wherever they live, work or go to school. They have therapists in many elementary and high schools. A few parishes, like St. Wenceslaus, also have a therapist working in an office on the parish campus.

Therapists who are so close eliminate the need for transportation. They also allow students to miss fewer classes.

Accessible services mean the world to those who need them. As one mother of a high schooler enrolled in therapy services at her high school put it, The therapy services provided at my child’s high school have been wonderful for my kids. Jenna has given them the tools to tackle tough issues such as anxiety and depression while also working with them to build up the skills to handle tough life decisions.”

In 2023, Catholic Charities provided almost 8,000 counseling sessions. Their therapists also offer mental health services in 23 schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha, serving approximately 8,000 students.

Catholic Charities also works in rural areas where it can be a struggle to find any mental health support, especially that which is in line with a person’s faith and values.


“This is one of the things of which I am most proud of,” Whitaker said. “Through our connection with rural communities, Catholic Charities is able to provide mental health services in places where there aren’t many local, accessible options. We do so by providing telehealth services and increasing access to mental health services through our school mental health program in several rural schools throughout the Archdiocese of Omaha.”

Denise Bartels, executive director of Catholic Charities, said bringing mental health care to anyone who needs it – wherever they are – is at the core of Catholic Charities’ mission to create “a supportive community where mental health needs are recognized and addressed” with the same urgency as physical health issues.

The first step for anyone interested in Catholic Charities’ behavioral health services is to call its behavioral health line at 531-213-7396 or email Whitaker said they would then be connected to where their needs would be best met, whether outpatient services or through our school mental health program.

Story Courtesy of The Catholic Voice:


Non-Discrimination Statement Catholic Charities Domestic Violence Services prohibits discrimination in all its programs, services, and activities. Services will not be denied to victims of sexual, domestic, or dating violence based on race, sex, gender identity, or gender expression, perceived or actual sexual orientation, age, color, religion, marital status, national origin, disability, socio-economic status, health status, HIV status, employment status, immigration status, or geographic location.

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