When “praying harder” isn’t the answer
When she’s working at the Marian House Soup Kitchen or Ecumenical Social Ministries, Velda Baker sees a lot of patients who come in for eyeglasses or dental fixes. What they get is a full nursing assessment that can open a Pandora’s box of deeper needs — often related to mental health.
“There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of other mental health issues out there that keep people from moving forward,” Baker says, “or cause them to become homeless.”
Baker is part of Centura Health’s faith community nursing program. At six local sites, faith community nurses provide the most vulnerable among us with not only immediate medical care, but also advice, referrals and support. They treat the symptoms of a problem, but also seek out underlying causes.
And now Baker is taking this principle further as a partner with NAMI-Colorado Springs on Bridges of Hope — part of NAMI’s expanding outreach into diverse local communities, and supportable through the 2017 Indy Give! campaign.
If stigma ails society on the whole, a root cause is lack of education. And one of the places where education is lacking, Baker feels, is in faith communities. She has heard of church leaders telling struggling parishioners to “pray harder,” or calling mental illness a spiritual demon, rather than a biological illness.
At a mental health summit last fall, she sat with a pair of older couples whose adult children live with mental illness. “They shared with the group, ‘Our sons were diagnosed in early or late teens, and now they’re in their 30s, and our church still doesn’t know what to do with us or with them.’”
Coming out of that summit, Baker and Tim Ashley of the Independence Center started gathering community leaders to talk about recasting the issue of mental illness among faith communities. Soon, NAMI volunteer/program coordinator Lynn Shull brought up Bridges of Hope, a national program that had yet to be introduced locally. Designed to educate faith communities about mental illness, it asks questions as elemental as, “What is mental illness?” and “What is the role of the faith community in helping those touched by serious mental illness?”
Starting in January, and quarterly after that, Baker, Shull and six co-organizers will invite church leaders to hour-long Bridges of Hope breakfasts at Mission Medical Clinic. The goal is to “open the door” and get people thinking differently about mental illness, and then to provide follow-up opportunities and resources, including support groups and education programs at NAMI, to allow for continuing education.
Baker may be one of the speakers who share family experiences with mental illness. When her father went through a bipolar episode years ago, she watched his church provide meals to her mother and brothers, and helped finish the spring planting on his Minnesota farm. “The support he received gave him the time and space to heal,” Baker says. “He returned to full and even healthier participation in the life of the community.”
There are many ways for a church community to support congregants with mental illness, starting with setting aside fear and being willing to listen. And Baker feels people locally are actually becoming more receptive to this idea, especially as families and faith communities have found themselves grappling with suicides and major mental health problems among teens in their own families.
“I have friends who have kids on the street,” Baker says. “They call me from D-20, D-11, Cheyenne Mountain: “Hey, I haven’t seen my son for a couple of days. I know he’s been using again. Can you just keep an eye out for him? Can you kinda walk through the Marian House on Tuesday and see if he’s there?’”
There’s no escaping difficult conversations when it comes to mental illness. But Bridges of Hope could help them happen earlier, and with more people taking part.
By donating to NAMI during Indy Give!, you support this program — and others that help individuals and families living with mental illness; teens just learning about warning signs; law enforcement officers; and others across the entire community. Please give today.