‘People, Places, Things,’ and Becoming Mentally Healthy
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
September 21, 2023
ROCKFORD—Richard (Dick) Kunnert has spent many years helping people.
He was a psychiatric rehabilitation counselor for 30 years, then worked to set up programs at mental health centers and a hospital. He is now a board member of the Winnebago County Mental Health Board.
As a counselor, he notes that his work was to help those struggling with depression or other mental health concerns figure out “What are the people, places and things (they) needed to help them function in their social role?”
“It matters a lot what you do with the people, places and things in your life in order to deal with the pitfalls in life and the culture,” Kunnert says, adding that the “root of all this” is the “nature and nurture” part of everyone’s life.
“Nature” includes addressing physical things such as exercise, what we eat and drink, how much sleep we get … all of that matters, Kunnert says, and what we do about supporting our physical wellbeing helps us. On the other hand, our health, including our mental health, is harmed when we neglect such self-care.
The “nature” part also includes any genetic predisposition for a serious mental illness. But even within that two percent of the population, Kunnert notes that work can be done to “sort of negate the worst part of the illness … and keep a person from going into the depths of the illness.”
Nature is important, but the “nurture” part “is huge,” Kunnert says. “We see it in young people, those who are victims of domestic violence or otherwise dysfunctional families (whether it involves) addiction or simply poor interpersonal relationships within a family.”
He mentions a class on “What you need to do to be happy,” that was offered at Yale University by Department of Psychology professor Laurie Santos. She had noticed a lot of depression in students, and put the class together to look at what science says about creating happiness.
“It was the largest attended class in the history of Yale,” Kunnert says, adding that studies show that 40 percent of college and university students report they have difficulty functioning at times. 
“Over 60 percent talk about loneliness, even with hundreds of students around,” he says.
Social isolation, Kunnert says, “is a trip to disaster. It’s imperative to put ourselves in relationship with one another.… relationships are so important,” including the kinds of people we have in our lives and what we’re doing together.
As a faithful Catholic, Kunnert points to the Church as having a lot of practices and approaches to life that are mentally healthy.
The Church “should think about what we teach and what we present on our theology. Do we hear enough about how each of us is unconditionally loved by God … we are always loved.”
In his own words, Jesus said he had come “to serve, not to be served,” Kunnert says, noting that science backs up the mental health of such an approach: “Science says it is good to see something bigger in (our) lives, and to serve it … to get out of ourselves into bigger (passions).”
We should become comfortable with being children of God, he says, recalling a question he and others ask though the Lead Like Jesus program he helps facilitate: “Why did God put you on the planet?”
“All of us,” he answers, “came (into existence) with a purpose and gifts to develop and make a contribution to the people” around us and in the world.
Two big questions that we can ask as people of faith are first, “Whose are we?” Kunnert says. “Do we choose to have Jesus to be our life model and really work at that relationship?”
The answer to the second question, “Who are we?” is that we are a “unique creation of God who is commanded to love God and our neighbor as (we love) our self … am I working on that?” he says.
“So again, I think the wellness of our Christian life is that it really tells us the road to staying well and helping the people around us also to stay well,” Kunnert concludes. 
“The main thing is to know that change is possible. There’s no question that we are creatures of habit, but the beauty is that we are capable of change anytime in our lives … None of this is easy, but it is doable.”
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