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Home : News : Nation and World
Wisconsin project raises awareness, funds to address mental illness
Catholic News Service

SOLON SPRINGS, Wis. — A northern Wisconsin priest is the head of a wide-ranging national organization to advocate for causes involving the mentally ill, and he has worked hand-in-hand for years with acclaimed actor and activist Martin Sheen.

Father Jim Kinney, who has family members who suffer from mental illness, is executive director of the nonprofit Peace of Mind Project, known as POMP. Over the years, he has teamed with Sheen, a Catholic, who has been its spokesman for 13 years and is featured in scores of public service announcements.

The latest series began running last fall and can be seen on the project's website, http://peaceofmindproject.com.

"They take on the issue of pending federal budget cuts for dealing with mental illness, including post-traumatic stress syndrome in members of the military, and question why money can be found for expensive new weapons but not soldiers in need of care," Father Kinney said, adding the amount proposed to be slashed keeps on growing.

"Our role is to provide education and communication. That is our forte," said Father Kinney, who doubles as pastor of a parish cluster based in Solon Springs, which is in the Superior Diocese.

He and Sheen also have worked with Jesuit Father Ron Schmidt on a documentary and play to raise awareness and funds. Father Schmidt also has done documentaries on a number of other social justice causes, including a 2008 film on Franz Jagerstatter, beatified as a martyr in 2007.

Intertwined with working to raise awareness are efforts to obtain private and government investments to fund research "into the mysteries of the human brain as it relates to the myriad number of (mental) illnesses that cost our country nearly one trillion dollars each year -- while we continue to invest a much larger fraction of our research dollars into other illnesses with less drastic economic and societal impacts," Father Kinney said in an interview for Catholic News Service.

The Peace of Mind Project also is co-sponsoring a genetic study into the causes of bipolar disorder and manic depression.

"What makes POMP unique is that we provide an ethical perspective on mental illness you won't always find," Father Kinney said. "We are challenging those behavioral scientists who have chosen to use medical research in violation of the principle rule of medicine, namely, 'First do no harm.'"

Father Kinney said that the major Catholic universities and other educational institutions are bereft of discussion on the moral theology of mental illness, and the moral responsibility of people under its influence. A stigma still exists, even among some professionals in fields such as sociology, that mental illness is more a moral failure than an illness, and this is an obstacle to getting a greater share of the funding pie, Father Kinney said.

He feels the Catholic Church needs to be more active in helping define norms for when mentally ill people are legally culpable if they commit a crime.

"What the church needs to do is to put the finest theologians together with the finest neurological scientists to come up with a reasonable moral code, versus what exists today -- essentially nothing," Father Kinney said.

The priest participated in a medical conference, "One Mind for Research," which featured scientists working with all forms of mental illness. Right now even China is spending more on this research than the United States, which is losing its leadership status worldwide on the issue, Father Kinney said.

Father Kinney has worked with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, of Rhode Island on the issue of mental illness, including to bring attention to legislation passed with the help of his father -- the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts -- to bring parity to health care by putting mental and physical illnesses on the same playing field for things such as insurance benefits. An accompanying research effort resulted in the medical reclassification of almost 500 brain illnesses.

Father Kinney estimates that over the past few years, the Peace of Mind Project has helped raise more than $12 million. "But that is a drop in the bucket compared to the influence had by negative media coverage," he said.

The passion actor Sheen brings to causes he supports is apparent when he talks about the Peace of Mind Project.

Mental illness is often swept under the rug or misunderstood and "as a known entity," he feels he can help shed light on the subject, said Sheen.

Everyone knows someone who is affected by mental illness, whether it be family or friend. It has touched his family and "is something with which I can identify," Sheen said.

"You don't have to be hungry to understand what hunger is, but it helps," Sheen said. "The people with whom (this work on mental illness) strikes a chord the most is those who are affected. ... Too often, they are dismissed or ignored, and that is the worst that can happen."

The human and financial cost of mental health problems is enormous, and it doesn't always get the attention of the national media, he said.

He called Father Kinney the "heart and soul" of the Peace of Mind Project. He knew the priest even before he was ordained.

The praise goes both ways.

"Without Sheen's time, talent and treasure, and accomplishments as a Catholic ... we never would have gotten any exposure for the public service announcements or the other related activities of our charity. POMP would be nonexistent," Father Kinney said.

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