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Faith and Mental Health: Nurturing Supportive Communities

     

As Pope Francis visits the United States this week, we hear often his messages of inclusion and serving those in need — messages that resonate with many, including those working to counter the stigma of mental illness and help those struggling with mental illness get the care they need.

Mental health and faith have long been interconnected in a number of ways. Many people, when faced with mental health challenges, turn to first to their faith leaders and for some people spirituality and religion play an important role in healing and recovery. Research supports the role of spirituality and religion in healing and mental health, including the benefits of such things as meditation and prayer, regular religious participation, mindfulness, belief in God, capacity to forgive, and hopefulness.

Yet many faith communities are still silent when it comes to addressing the stigma of mental illness. A physical illness may bring an outpouring of support, while support may be much less forthcoming for individuals with mental health challenges and their families. Many faith communities, however, have undertaken significant efforts at developing supportive communities and ministries for individuals and families facing mental health challenges.

The Interfaith Network on Mental Illness (INMI), a national nonprofit working to raise awareness and understanding among faith leaders and communities. Other examples include the Union for Reform Judaism which has developed a number of resources relating to mental health and addiction and the National Catholic Partnership on Disability which offers resources including a video “Welcomed and Valued: Supporting People with Mental Illness in Parish life.” Farha Abassi, M.D., a professor at Michigan State University and psychiatrist with the University’s student health center, has been active in working with the Muslim community around issues of mental health. She has helped coordinate a series of workshops on mental health at Islamic Centers and a panel discussion of Imams at a medical school. Abassi emphasizes in her efforts that mental illness is not a spiritual weakness and that Islam emphasizes both welfare and wellness — living and promoting a healthy mind, body, marriage and family.

In addition to the INMI, several interfaith organizations are also working to help faith communities support people and families facing mental health challenges, including Pathways to Promise, and Mental Health Ministries. The Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder, founder of Mental Health Ministries, recently described in the Christian Citizen, her personal experience that prompted her to form the organization: “For me the most painful part of my illness was the feeling of disconnection. A supportive faith community would have helped me feel that I was connected to something bigger than my own feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. A supportive faith community would have embraced my family.”

APA has also undertaken an initiative, the Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership, to help foster understanding and collaboration between faith leaders from a many traditions and the psychiatrists and other mental health professions. Craig Rennebohm, M.Div., a Steering Committee member of the Partnership and chaplain with Pathways to Promise, shared his own experience of one valuable role a faith community can undertake – that of companionship.

As a young man, I experienced a prolonged episode of major depression. I felt utterly lost, greatly ashamed and deeply hopeless to the point of suicide. … I was first helped by our pastor, Dick, who simply sat with me, making no attempts to ‘fix me’ or offer advice. He came to the house, invited me for coffee, and we occasionally had lunch together. Dick looked for what we had in common, including an interest in books and theater. He listened, especially through pauses and silence, and without judgment, to my story. He went with me to see a doctor. He spoke honestly of his limits and related to me as one human being to another. He helped me build a sense of self and soul larger than my illness. I still am vulnerable to symptoms of depression. I take medication, and I have benefitted from several good counselors and the love of my family and friends, but Dick’s early companionship laid a basic foundation for recovery and emerging well-being. ... The companion reminds us, despite our illness, that we are never lost.

Craig Rennebohm

     

Patients and Families

 

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