Bridging the Gap Between Secular and Spiritual: Mental Illness & Faith

AUG. 03, 2015

By Luna Greenstein

FaithNet panelsits at the bridging the gap session during convention.“At the end of a service I ask everyone to rise if they or someone they love lives with a mental illness, and almost everyone stands,” said Barbara F. Meyers, a Unitarian minister during the NAMI FaithNet panel.

Three distinguished panelists led a session at the 2015 NAMI National Convention in San Francisco discussing how to connect faith communities into the mental health space, and how spirituality can be an important aspect of the recovery process.

Rev. Meyers’ ministry, the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freemont, Calif., focuses on mental health issues with the goal of bringing together congregations, health care providers and faith communities. She has been the leader of four initiatives in order to make this happen: Creating a program of support workshops for people living with mental illness and their families, starting a counseling program centered on spirituality integrated psychotherapy, producing Mental Health Matters, a public television program and creating a video series about people recovering from mental health issues.

Prior to becoming ordained, Rev. Meyers spent 25 years as a computer programmer. She decided to become a minister after her religion helped her through her own experience living with depression.

Rev. Meyers’ initiatives are open to all faiths and attempt to bring the different congregations together.  “What keeps me going are the people whose faith is not respected during their healing process and trying to find a place that respects all faiths.”

As a man living with schizoaffective disorder/bipolar type, the second panelist, Danny Gibbs, is a shining example of how faith may help someone living with a mental illness. According to him, “the most important aspect of recovery is faith. I cannot separate recovery and faith.”

Having the experience of being accepted by a congregation who understood that he was struggling gave Danny the strength he needed to address his problems. “That’s what the faith community does--it supports you and walks with you through your recovery.”

Danny now devotes his life to helping youth living with mental illness and using his lived experience as a beacon of hope. He does this by working for the Orange County Department of Mental Health, serving as a NAMI Peer-to-Peer mentor and through his involvement with NAMI FaithNet.

The last panelist, Sr. Nancy Clare Kehoe, RSCJ, PhD, is a respected psychologist and a part-time Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. She has helped many community members living with mental illness through her efforts such as facilitating support groups and treatment programs, producing a video series entitled Conversations on Religion & Mental Illness and writing the book, Wrestling With Our Inner Angels.

Nancy explains that in order to “bridge the gap” between mental illness and faith, faith leaders must understand more about mental illness and mental health professionals must feel more comfortable in exploring a person’s spirituality. “We need to bridge the gap between the secular and the spiritual within ourselves.”

Visit the NAMI website for more on the role faith and spirituality may play in a person’s recovery journey. Also, check the website in the fall for expanded website resources targeted to helping inspire caring, accepting faith communities.

NAMI FaithNet is a network of NAMI members and friends dedicated to promoting caring faith communities and promoting the role of faith in recovery for individuals and families affected by mental illness for whom faith is a component of their journey. 


JUL, 11, 2016 01:23:22 AM
Debbie Meyer
I believe NAMI is as involved with introducing faith as an additional healing tool, just as much as they are involved with introducing programs for veterans, high schools, middle schools, families, advocates, and more. They have always said they offer a buffet of tools in our healing and recovery; at any given time, take only what is helpful to you.

SEP, 04, 2015 03:45:33 PM
Lori Papa
Ruth, my devoutness as a Christian has nothing to do with how much support I get from my church. If they do not recognize that Mental Illness does not exist as a disease, then that infers that there is a questions as to my faith. I pray. I read my bible. I attend church every week and participate in bible study groups. All of this helps me but I have no control over how the people in the church perceive my illness. I am sure they pray for me but what exactly are they praying for? For me to realize that I only need more faith, for my brain to be healed or that I be healed from Demons? (Which was suggested by one woman at my church) I hate to sound critical but this is the attitude that I have gotten when I try to seek counseling within my church.

AUG, 31, 2015 12:50:58 PM
I think people confuse spirituality and faith in a specific religion. Prior to my son getting schizophrenia 5 years ago, I believed in a god and practiced that faith for all my life. However, now that I have experienced a part of this life existence that went against everything that I had previously believed, I have taken on a different belief system. My spirituality now comes from having faith in the natural order of things. Some living organisms have a really harsh and "unfair" existence, while others have a relatively easy time of it. This new belief helps me cope with the unfairness of mental illness and helps me rely on fundamental truths, such as knowing without a doubt that the sun will rise and present a new day for us all. I say, "believe whatever gets you through the day."

AUG, 30, 2015 12:51:21 PM
When the symptoms of my mental illness became too much for me to handle alone, I turned to my church for help. I had kept my mental illness a secret from my fellow church members and was totally blindsided by their reaction. My pastor told me I loved my bicycle too much (I was a long distance cyclist) and didn't love God enough. When I shared that my illness stemmed from sexual abuse I was treated like a worldly (read *****) woman that might dirty their Sunday clothes. I was expecting the people to reach out to help me; instead I was shunned and basically showed the door.
I know some of their reactions came from not understanding mental illness and not knowing how to help. But I feel main reason was their "holier than thou" condescending attitude toward mental illness.

AUG, 30, 2015 10:32:00 AM
I agree, Margaret. For me, counseling without including my faith in God leaves out the biggest part of me.

AUG, 29, 2015 11:37:13 PM
Thanks for this post

AUG, 29, 2015 11:36:05 PM
My son with schizophrenia has been in recovery for a year with the help of his Philadelphia County Mental Health Team who encouraged him to get back into treatment. He and I connected when I told him my book-club was reading Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace, and he had also read it. Our discussions improved dramatically with this spiritual connection.

AUG, 29, 2015 07:03:41 PM
Pete Nelson
I have long thought spirituality should play a role in recovery. Whatever religion you profess or if you're atheist or agnostic it is still a part of your life. When I'm depressed I withdraw from all the activities and support groups I have around me. I know that's the worst thing I can do to myself. I feel strongly that I can't climb out on my own and need to confess my weakness. The support of a caring spiritual community might reach me at my lowest point.

AUG, 29, 2015 01:38:54 PM
Wendy Lampert
Each one of us has the concept of God within us. We all have a conscience,and are all spiritually connected, as a part of all of us is spirit. In order to address the vast ocean of suffering and pain associated with so called "mental illness" we must all embrace that spark that lives within each of us. We all have responsibility in this dying world and it only takes one drop in a puddle to produce a ripple effect. I think it would be a fabulous breakthrough for the mental health community to band together to stop the extra sensitive issues which plague those labeled with a mental illness. I'm not advocating for a complete change in everyone, but I believe it possible for healing to take place through community support and involvement in addressing and embracing the neglected spiritual needs of us all, mental illness or not.

AUG, 29, 2015 10:45:19 AM
Darlene McAuliffe
I have noticed that many denominations stigmatize the mental ill as being less of a religious or spiritual person. I have first hand experience with these types of leaders and members of the traditional Judeo Christian religion and being ostracized. The most hurtful words are those coming from those who don't have a clue about the human body and make blanket statements. I was told by the religious Christians that I wasn't truly saved or a true believer because I had PTSD. I left that Church and sought out a more bible based church. Thanks for the article. It is nice to know someone is trying to bridge the gap of ignorance.

AUG, 29, 2015 10:12:12 AM
Please read my testimony on this issue. It was a lifelong war, a matter of life and death quite frequently. It's all written in the description and comment section.

AUG, 29, 2015 06:54:52 AM
Laura Jackson
The role of faith in the healing process has been ignored for too long. My observation of mental health professionals is the following. If they can't prove something works through science it doesn't exist and therefore it is invalid. Some aspects of faith can be proved through science--like creation. But the spiritual aspect of the healing process can not except, perhaps, the end result. It just happens. Mental health consumers need a place to talk about this healing process and have it validated, understood and accepted by both the faith communities and the psychologists. Science is often one sided--their side. In fact, I feel professionals see people's faith commitments as delusions. That is so wrong!! It is God given--to be so blessed and healed.

AUG, 28, 2015 10:35:13 PM
Ruth, I don't think people atomatically bridge mental illness and mental illness. Unfortunately, so many people in out society are uneducated about mental illness, they feel helpless when hearing someone confide in them about their mental health problems. The most comon comment we hear when someone tells us about an indiviual with a serious illness, is, "I'm sorry, I'll keep them in prayer." It's what we say when we don't know what else to say. With mental illness, others canot understand it because they can't see it, there are no marks or bandages or outward signs of suffering and no one knows what to say. I would say there are probably more Christians in our society than not and as Christians, we are taught that God is the almighty and the one we turn to when we have lost hope or don't understand a problem. In my case, my faith is quite important in my recovery process, but it wasn't until my second year into therapy with my psychiatrist that I brought up my faith as something important to me. With that, he acknowledged the importance of my faith and asks me about it often in therapy. Had I never brought it up, I'm quite certain he would never have mentioned it. I have encountered other people in group settings or when I was hospitalized who were non-believers or not Christians and no one is our discussion groups or meal times ever presumed to treat them differently than another. We were bound together by our illness, not by our faith.

AUG, 28, 2015 07:44:28 PM
It is a great thing to hear about how faith is being recognized in the mental health community. However, we need to see mental illness recognized as an illness within religious community. I recently attended a Biblical Counseling instruction class at my church and it was all but said directly that there is no such thing as mental illness. It has shaken my faith. Where do I find a church that can be accepting of my illness? This is my new challenge.

AUG, 28, 2015 03:59:26 PM
is there anything in the Charleston, SC area

AUG, 28, 2015 03:26:12 PM
Johanna Ryan
Ruth makes a good point about respect for individual choice. I’ve got another, similar concern.

Just as a psychiatrist should respect your choices as to spiritual expression (or lack thereof), I truly hope that faith communities who partner with NAMI FaithNet will respect their parishioners' choices as to psychiatry. It scares me to see everyone from pastors to teachers to hairdressers being "educated" in the "correct" attitude towards mental illness -- i.e., that it is a biological brain disease, based on chemical imbalances that the medical community thoroughly understands and can now cure with their wonderful drugs.

Those of us who have been down that road for many years know that biological psychiatry is still stumbling in the dark. These medications do not cure. They can do great good for some people and catastrophic harm to others. The great majority will find there is some benefit, and some harm, and only we will be able to make the tough choices among those imperfect alternatives.

I am especially concerned about the high level of pharmaceutical industry funding in NAMI and other mental-health nonprofits. It was my own trials and tribulations on psychiatric medication over the course of 20+ years that drove me to re-investigate big spiritual and philosophical questions about who I was, who we all were, and what were the grounds for hope?

My own Unitarian congregation has been both a refuge and a gateway to all kinds of discovery in that process. I cringe when I think it could become a House of Pharma ... Please don't let that happen, Rev. Meyers!

AUG, 28, 2015 02:44:38 PM
I agree with Ruth's comments. I became a volunteer for NAMI earlier this year. I am an atheist (a Humanist, to be precise) and I was unaware that NAMI National was moving in a direction to incorporate religion/spirituality into its programs. This is a huge disappointment to me. Ruth is correct that there are innumerable outlets for religious counseling, therapy, support, and networking in every city in this country. NAMI's affiliation with religion will drive away men and women who are uncomfortable (or who feel judged) by this religious component.

AUG, 28, 2015 01:22:22 PM
Dean Traweek
To Rita Wilson: Rita, Try AA. I started AA this year dealing with bipolar and substance abuse. It was tremendously helpful. And there were others with bipolar, not surprisingly! Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance is another source of support where you will find that many others have both issues.

AUG, 28, 2015 01:19:53 PM
Dean Traweek
Responding to Sandy in DuPage, IL: Sandy, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance has its headquarters in Illinois and could be very helpful and supportive. Check out DBSA in your area as soon as you can!

AUG, 28, 2015 12:45:41 PM
Joanne Jordan
So glad to hear this. My daughter and ex are both bipolar. No meds. I've been praying for them both for years. I know God has a plan and they will be healed in his timing. I've been wanting to being my daughter, Jessica to a meeting. Are they any local faith meetings near me in San Jacinto, CA. 92583 . 909-913-2653

AUG, 28, 2015 12:03:07 PM
We started a group in our parish for families dealing with mental illness. So far it is just parents of children with mental illness coming to our group. It is wonderful for us parents to talk to other parents who understand and don't judge and to know we are not alone. It is funny when a new person comes into the group to see the expression on their face in seeing our faces. None of us has any idea what other parents and parishioners deal with at home.

AUG, 28, 2015 11:44:05 AM
Dianne K
Faith is an ambiguous term, for me it does not equate with religion. Atheists can be religious in the sense of passion for their beliefs. While Rev. Meyers title is Reverend, she sounds focused on persons of all faiths and backgrounds as does the Universalist Church.

According to the Unitarian Universalist Website:
"What We Believe": In Unitarian Universalism, you can bring your whole self: your full identity, your questioning mind, your expansive heart.

Together, we create a force more powerful than one person or one belief system. As Unitarian Universalists, we do not have to check our personal background and beliefs at the door: we join together on a journey that honors everywhere we’ve been before.

Our beliefs are diverse and inclusive. We have no shared creed. Our shared covenant (our seven Principles) supports “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Though Unitarianism and Universalism were both liberal Christian traditions, this responsible search has led us to embrace diverse teachings from Eastern and Western religions and philosophies.

Unitarian Universalists believe more than one thing. We think for ourselves, and reflect together, about important questions."

Disclaimer, I am not a Unitarian Universalist. With that said, I would not label Unitarian Universalists as your typical Christian philosophy. Spirituality is a more accurate descriptor, not a religion. I wouldn't rule out Rev. Meyers anymore than secular mental health researcher Marsha Linehan, PhD. Marsha Linehan, in jest I call "The Goddess" of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Is it faith based or secular? Well, the premise of her imperial research is based on the results of patients and their use of eastern and western philosophies, combined with psycho therapy practices. Philosophy is not a religion, but a science. Psycho therapy is not a religion, it's basis on science. If one is dogmatic that their 'belief', whether in Science or God is the only way, it's a quasi religion.

I believe her work is more about faith based people understanding mental health if those in their communities. She is not proselytizing mentally ill person to religion. I'll stop here with the definition of religion from the Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary:
"a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith."

AUG, 28, 2015 10:59:50 AM
To Ruth. Devout folks may have the least help! With a perspective by those around you constantly saying "you're just not praying good enough or you'd be healed" or "you're just not righteous enough to be healed" it could very well be that many devout people are left to suffer alone and may fall through the cracks. My being "devout" postponed my diagnosis for twenty years. Please don't assume someone will never need help.

AUG, 28, 2015 08:54:01 AM
Karen M Ruggiero

AUG, 28, 2015 08:40:04 AM
Gemma luescher
while the clinics offered a counselling minister and a meditation circle through the catholic and reform churches here in switzerland, i was able to have someone to ask all the hard questions like how faith works with my illness,
but there are a few religions where i feel condemned for my illness which really defeats the purpose, they insult the use of medication, or the need to be on assistance- i can't work, and my ex is fighting having to pay me anything. it causes distance between a good friend and myself. but the openness of the catholic church has allowed me to become an active participant in the congregation, and they have helped me remain an active participant in my childrens lives.

AUG, 28, 2015 07:31:59 AM
Sheila Langston
The Lutheran Church of St. Andrew began our Mental Health Ministry 2 years ago. We serve our 2000+ faith community members and the Montgomery County, MD area. We minister to all age groups individually, with families, in special programs for young families-children's/teens programs and transitioning young adults. We provide many resources and referrals to secular community organizations for further treatment. We are
developing support groups, facilitators for NAMI classes, and provide ongoing training for inividuals desiring to be part of this compassionate and caring ministry. We have found that this is a much needed service for inividuals and families of faith in the greater Washington DC area.

AUG, 27, 2015 11:32:48 PM
steven rosen
Faith has been beneficial in helping to deal with crisis and other stressful matters. We each must find our own means of adapting to the burdens of mental illness. Religion is but one way

AUG, 27, 2015 08:58:05 PM
I really don't want it to be "visible". Thanks!

AUG, 27, 2015 08:57:14 PM
What is there in the Eureka, Ca. area regarding NAMI/Mental Health help?

AUG, 27, 2015 08:34:57 PM
I am so glad that efforts are being made to integrate the faith based communities with the issues of mental illness. There is still such a stigma against mental illness in the Christian community. I once heard a pastor tell a woman that she didn't need Prozac, she just needed more Jesus. From my prospective, that woman clearly needed her Prozac or she was going to end up being incarcerated again. Why is it preachers and other leaders can tell people not to take psych drugs, but they wouldn't tell you to stop taking your blood pressure medicine. Where does the stigma come from and what can be done to eradicate it?

AUG, 27, 2015 08:32:05 PM
Charles Feldman
A NAMI member from my state picked up Wrestling with Our Inner Angels for me at the recent NAMI Convention. I am thinking of starting a nondenominational discussion group on spiritual issues at the peer-run wellness and recovery center where I work. I would appreciate any tips Nancy or others could give me on making this group a success if I get a chance to start it.

AUG, 17, 2015 12:23:57 AM
I have long pined for a time when religion and faith are left out of recovery and mental illness. I think it would be better left up to an individual whether to introduce the subject into their own healing process. So often people cannot divorce religion from seeking help and it alienates those who are less religious or not religious. Devout folks will never have a shortage of support.

AUG, 16, 2015 05:02:21 PM
Joanne Beckman
I am part of a local coalition of congregations in the NC Triangle area, called Faith Connections on Mental Illness ( We have representatives from faith communities who meet monthly and are "connectors" for their congregations to inform, educate, advocate in their faith community. Nancy Kehoe was a speaker at one of our annual conferences, she is highly recommended. We work closely with local NAMI affiliates, and are grateful for NAMI!

AUG, 16, 2015 09:59:10 AM
I need help. I have had all types of medications and nothing seems to work for long. I am lonely and depressed. All I do is cry. I don't know where to go anymore. I ask God for help everyday and to direct me. I don't know how I can keep this up, Is there any where in DuPage County for help?

AUG, 09, 2015 05:51:04 PM
RITA wilson
I need help in tulsa Oklahoma. Is there a group here for tbi bipolar and substsnce abuse...nami?

AUG, 04, 2015 10:13:32 PM
It is so refreshing to hear dialogue about faith within the mental health community. Thank you for including God in the healing process. Miracles can happen if we believe and pray. Lets keep talking about God. He loves us all.

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