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Solon Springs pastor brings star power to fight for mental illness

A Solon Springs priest heads a national organization to advocate for causes involving the mentally ill and works hand-in-hand with acclaimed actor and activist Martin Sheen, and others with star power.

Rev. Jim Kinney has family members who suffer from mental illness, and is executive director of the nonprofit Peace of Mind Project (POMP), during which time he has teamed with Sheen, its spokesperson for 13 years, who is featured in scores of public service announcements.

"The (most recent) 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," Kinney said. He said the amount proposed to be slashed keeps growing.

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

He and Sheen also have worked with Rev. Ron Schmidt on a documentary and play to raise awareness and funds. Schmidt has also done documentaries on a number of other social justice causes.

Intertwined with these efforts is raising private and government money to fund research "into the mysteries of the human brain as it relates to the myriad of mental illnesses that cost our country nearly $1 trillion each year. A much larger fraction of our research dollars are invested into other illnesses with less drastic economic and societal impacts, Kinney said.

POMP also is cosponsoring 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," 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."

Kinney, a longtime priest, said 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 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, Kinney said.

For example, churches need to be more active in helping define norms for when mentally ill people are legally culpable if they commit a crime, he said.

"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," Kinney said.

Right now even China is spending more on this research than the United States, Kinney said.

Kinney participated in a medical conference, One Mind for Research, which featured scientists working with all forms of mental illness.

One of the keynote speakers was former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose late father, when president coined the term "race to outer space." Patrick Kennedy said "this is the race to inner space." Conference participants took back information to help them work as advocates, and provide direct action to people with mental illness. An example is gathering the substantial amount of genetic extended-family history to aid treatment for a family with 13 children. Kinney has worked with Patrick Kennedy, including an event POMP helped sponsored with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, to bring attention to legislation passed with the help of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy to bring parity to health care, putting mental and physical illnesses on the same playing field for insurance benefits.

An accompanying research effort resulted in reclassification of almost 500 brain illnesses. Insurance companies and corporate interests fought some portions of the bill, Kinney said. He was with the Kennedys at the Kennedy Library in May 2011, when they and Vice President Joe Biden launched their "Race to Inner Space" campaign.

"Several other advocacy groups were in attendance along with POMP, not the least of which was Glen Close's well-financed and celebrity-backed charity, Bring Change to Mind," Kinney said.

"How much I help can be seen as a double-edged sword. Some people are opposed," Sheen said, adding it depends on how much light he can shed on a subject often swept under the rug or misunderstood. This is where he, "as a known entity," can help, Sheen said. "Obviously, it has in a direct sense touched my family and is something with which I can identify."

So he wants to reach out to others.

"You don't have to be hungry to understand what hunger is, but it helps," Sheen said as an analogy.

"Too often, they are dismissed or ignored, and that is the worst that can happen," Sheen said. To be alone when fighting mental illness is terrible, and what is needed is to have a community to help you. In that way of support, it can be like the Church, which despite all its shortcomings as an institution, provides salvation through Jesus Christ and a universal community, Sheen said.

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. That's where he is grateful to Kinney, whom he has known even before Kinney was ordained.

"He is the (POMP) organization's heart and soul," Sheen said.

"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 non-existent," Kinney said.