In This Issue:
By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator
Back row: Gunnar Christiansen, Tom Lambert, Susan Christiansen, Katrina Gay
Craig Ronnebohn and Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder
The NAMI Convention this past July revealed that the NAMI leaders' interest in faith outreach, as well as the role of faith in recovery for many living with mental illness, continues to grow and develop. With numerous workshops and networking sessions held at the latest convention, NAMI FaithNet is putting together an extraordinary strategy for uniting all faiths in the common goal to provide help and hope to those affected by mental illness.
In recent years, religion and spirituality have proven to be vital components in many individuals' recoveries from mental illness. The ideas of hope, belonging and other inherent aspects of religion and spirituality can help improve psychological well-being.
To open up this year's NAMI convention, NAMI leaders interested or engaged in outreach to faith communities met together to share ideas and learn positive strategies about integrating mental illness and faith from one another. This opportunity to meet with other individuals who share similar beliefs and experiences proved to be extremely important, as many took away new techniques to try in their hometown communities once they returned home from Chicago. The ability to connect with others throughout the country and discuss issues of faith and mental illness delivered an exceptionally informative and useful session where you could incorporate new ideas and plans of action.
"The NAMI FaithNet advisory group works throughout the year to plan for the NAMI Convention," said Katrina Gay, NAMI's director of communications. "These dedicated individuals are both NAMI leaders and faith community leaders representing diverse faith traditions and various regions of the country. Their personal experience, perspective and commitment to the NAMI mission ensure that there is always a strong "track" of networking sessions, workshops and presentations at the convention and strong content offered through the NAMI FaithNet website section.
Despite the positive relationship between faith and recovery for many affected by mental illness, religion has not always viewed as positively in respect to its relationship to mental illness. As Dr. Nancy Kehoe noted in her symposium on Friday, July 8 at the convention, up until the last 20 years or so, religion was often considered a symptom of a person's illness rather than a beneficial aspect.
Advancements in scientific research have shown that many features of spirituality and religion, such as meditation and the sense of community, among others, can be beneficial in the recovery from mental illness. Rather than a product of mental illness, religion and spirituality are now seen as forces of good in the recovery process. Slides of Dr. Kehoe's presentation are available for download on NAMILand.
Philip Qualo and Stephen Kiosk of the NAMI STAR Center led a discussion on some of the many ways the aspects of spirituality can lead to mental health recovery and wellness. Identifying many tools and resources available for personal help, attendees walked away with many tangible actions they could take to increase the acceptance of mental illness in numerous religious and cultural groups.
"I was very impressed with the large number of NAMI members that attended the program. It shows there's a lot of interest in incorporating tools of spirituality and religion in either their own recovery or that of a loved one," said Philip Qualo, program manager of the STAR Center.
For many, combining a journey of faith and mental illness experience is often difficult. They are unsure of whether or not faith should play a central role in their recovery or stay on the periphery. This internal conflict is often the consequence of their own faith community at home does not have a great understanding of mental illness and responds with stigmatizing remarks and misguided beliefs about what having a mental illness means.
In the final NAMI faith and mental illness session, presenters Carole Wills of NAMI Indiana, Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder of NAMI San Diego and Rev. Craig Rennebohm of NAMI Seattle, all members of the NAMI FaithNet Advisory Group, sought to help answer those difficult questions that members of faith communities face. Attendees were able to gain real-world skills for initiating and organizing faith community outreach by receiving an introduction to Reaching Out to Faith Communities, a grassroots, self-guided curriculum to assist with NAMI outreach efforts.
Hiding one's mental illness from your religious community is a decision that often brings more feelings of stress and isolation. Knowing how to share your experience of mental illness with your faith community is an important talent. As NAMI FaithNet continues to grow and expand, the relationship between religion and spirituality and mental illness will become less of a strain and more a harmonious interaction.
By Nancy Kehoe RSCJ, Ph.D.
In deciding whether religion and spirituality is an asset or a liability for people living with and recovering from mental illness I want to be clear that I am neither addressing this from a theological position nor am I making judgments about different theologies or different understandings of grace, redemption, demons and illness. I am simply looking at this question from the perspective of someone who lives with mental illness or is a family member of someone living with mental illness.
When we refer to religion we generally mean an organized system of beliefs that are held by a community. These beliefs and rituals are shaped by an oral and written tradition. Authority figures, rules and structures help to maintain continuity within the tradition and organize the community.
The concept of spirituality is more difficult to describe as it is more individual in nature. Spirituality may refer to a practice, a belief in some higher power, sources of peace, hope, connection, values, meaning and purpose. Individuals who belong to a religious tradition may find their faith community nourishes their spirituality; for others, it may not.
Historical reasons exist for why religion and spirituality has not been explored in mental health treatment but that trend is changing. A growing body of research indicates that people, who live with either a physical illness or mental illness, are helped by their religious/spiritual beliefs and practices.
The effects of mental illness are wide-ranging. For some it can mean a feeling of a loss of meaning or purpose in life, decreased self-esteem or hopelessness. For other it may result in a feeling of isolation, whether by their own choosing or because of stigma. These effects can also drastically affect one's ability to work and sustain relationships.
Mental illness often makes individuals question whether God has abandoned them, whether they are evil because they have considered suicide, whether they are being punished or whether there are demons that have played a role in their illness. Individuals struggle to know the difference between the voice of God and the voices of their illness or between spiritual darkness and depression.
Religion is an asset in the process of recovery when a community has mentors and guides who understand mental illness, when the community is open and welcoming to diversity. Other religious beliefs can enhance recovery: the representation of God as loving and caring, messages of hope instead of fear and despair, customs and rituals that are relevant to the human condition, a condition of suffering and searching that is acknowledged and supported by everyone.
However, religious affiliation can hinder recovery when the leaders or community deny the reality of mental illness, or when individuals are excluded because they "don't fit in." If the way God is represented reinforces fear and judgment or if the beliefs held by a community reinforce one's sense of evil, then recovery from mental illness is hampered.
New paradigms are long over-due. In order to overcome the separation between religious/spiritual beliefs and mental health treatment, mental health professionals must be trained to explore the religious and spiritual dimensions of a person's life and clergy and congregations must be educated to understand mental illness. Religious leaders and mental health professionals alike must see each person as a whole-body, mind and spirit. Recovery happens with more integrity when all these aspects of a person's life are respected and addressed.
Audio tapes for Religion/Spirituality: Assets or Liability in Recovery are still available from NAMI at www.nami.org/convention.
Dr. Nancy Kehoe is the Director of Expanding Connections, is a licensed psychologist. She is an Instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Cambridge Health Alliance, affiliated with Harvard Medical School. She is a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart and has held various leadership positions in her religious congregation.
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