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Conversations on Spirituality and Mental Illness

By Nancy Kehoe, RSCJ, Ph.D


NAMI began when some parents reached out to connect with other parents who were living with mental illness in the family. Isolation is a frequent and painful aspect of mental illness; reaching out and connecting with others always bring a sense of life and reduce the sense of isolation.

Five years ago, three mothers who had adult children with mental illness reached out to me for consultation. For one mother, her daughter’s schizophrenia, accompanied by religious delusions, prompted her to call me. For the other two women, their questions concerned the way faith could help as they lived with the suffering of their children's mental illness.

As we talked, the idea of having a book event arose. It could introduce the idea of faith and mental illness and would be an excellent way of attracting some interest in the community, in addition to it being an invitation to join the faith group we were going to start.

The first group met in June of 2009 and has met faithfully every second Monday of the month since that date—a remarkable record for such a group. The members of the group are parents who have children with mental illness, individuals who live with mental illness, anyone from the parish who is simply interested in the topic, and then others who learned about it from word of mouth or the NAMI affiliate’s newsletter.

The title of the group is "Caring for the Soul." Twelve to fifteen men and women are present each month. One of the co-founders sends out an email reminder a week in advance.

We set some basic ground rules from the beginning and have established a simple way of being together. The focus of the group is to consider how our faith/spirituality helps us as we live with mental illness, either our own or that of a family member. The group is not a therapy group, nor is it a prayer group but a discussion group. It is also not a social action group. It is open to anyone regardless of a religious affiliation, though most of the members are Christian. We do have individuals from different denominations and others who are seekers.The format we created is this: at the beginning of each group the leader asks each one to introduce herself or himself—as we usually have one or two new people each month—and invites them to say a little about themselves. Some just say their name; some say what illness they are living with; some identify themselves as parents of someone living with a mental illness.

As leader, I usually bring some idea, a poem, a quote, a reflection on a recent experience that has been newsworthy. It can also be something connected with the calendar year or the church year and then the conversation begins. Fifteen minutes before the group ends, the leader offers members the time to mention any event or piece of legislation that is coming up as just a point of information. Then the leader brings a small wooden cross or a heart stone and we pass it around. Each one is invited to say something in closing or to just hold the object and say nothing. Often individuals will acknowledge gratitude for the group. Our discussions have focused on how suffering leads to or develops a deeper faith, people's journey with faith, the pain of stigma, and forgiveness in relation to abuse. Furthermore, other discussions focus religious messages that have not been helpful, honesty with God and honesty with oneself, and the role of the arts in healing. A question that we might discuss is our wounds a gift?

Over the years the level of trust and the freedom to explore one’s beliefs in a safe, non-judgmental environment has been extremely beneficial to all. Members of the group have described it as "a place where you can talk about what has hurt you with others who have been hurt is healing" and an "atmosphere of total acceptance that is very unique." A third member said, "Because we are all seekers or people of faith, this makes other sharing possible and deeper." Another member said, "We usually walk with masks on. Here we have no masks." In the sharing of their journeys, parents, adult children, believers, the group has become a community.

There are many NAMI Affiliates around the country that have faith-related support groups. To see some examples of faith-related support groups, click here [PDF]. To see if there is a group in your area, click here.

Nancy Kehoe is a member of the NAMI FaithNet advisory group and the author of Wrestling with Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness, and the Journey to Wholeness.

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