To help with what Mike Tanner calls “a gap” between the presence of mental health issues and the awareness of them by the faith community, National Alliance on Mental Illness’s High Country chapter is hoping to get church members talking about mental illness.
Tanner serves as the president of NAMI High Country and is a retired Episcopal priest. He said that he has often seen that people may not disclose their struggles with mental illness even in their church communities due to the stigma fed by misinformation.
“There is shame and fear associated with saying to someone, ‘I’m struggling with depression’ or ‘I’m struggling with bipolar disorder,’” Tanner said. “We have this disconnect. We have the presence of mental health issues everywhere. It touches every family and every community, but it’s often not spoken about. Because they don’t speak of it, they don’t get support from people in churches who might respond very well or might need some education.”
NAMI High Country recently announced that it is bringing FaithNet resources to the area. FaithNet is a network facilitated by the national NAMI group to encourage faith communities to become welcoming and supportive of persons and families living with mental illness, according to NAMI.
“We are well positioned to direct people to the professional help they need, but we are also well positioned to offer them what professionals cannot offer — at least not in the current environment in which mental health services are poorly funded and often limited to direct care — we can offer communities of compassion and hope,” Tanner said. “We can embrace them as God’s beloved in spite of the stigma that plagues the lives of people affected by mental illness.”
FaithNet — found by visiting nami.org/NAMIFaithnet — offers information on support groups, additional education and discussion topics surrounding the matter of mental illness. NAMI High Country is now offering 30-minute FaithNet presentations for faith communities about how churches can help in cases of mental illness. Faith communities can invite local NAMI members or mental health professionals to speak to their congregations.
If interested, NAMI High Country can then connect faith communities to support groups, free trainings and other resources, Tanner said. NAMI volunteers can equip congregation members to support individuals and families affected by mental illness through prayer, hospital and home visits, support groups and inclusion in worship and other activities.
NAMI High Country is offering its first free FaithNet “Bridges of Hope” presentation at a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 3 at the Watauga Public Library. A light meal will be served, so attendees are asked to RSVP.
“Mental illness affects nearly 60 million Americans every year,” according to NAMI. “Regardless of race, age, religion or economic status, mental illness impacts the lives of at least one in four adults and one in 10 children across the United States. People living with mental illness need help and hope. They need a community that supports them, their families and recovery.”
Tanner said that he started serving at a church in Atlanta in 2006 that had a population where 60 percent of the members had a mental illness of sorts. He said people with mental illness would “flock” to that church because they felt accepted there and could “come as they are.”
“One of the questions that came to me as I worked with that church, why did it take getting into my mid-50s for me to pay attention to mental illness in our society and in our churches?” Tanner said. “I’ve been in churches all my life. With a few exceptions, very little was said in church about mental health issues. It was whispered about, never said outright. Nobody ever said, ‘This is not because they’re a bad person. It’s not because they’re weak. It’s because they’re sick.’”
While talking with a parishioner, Tanner said he was told that when she had a physical illness people would bring her casseroles. But when she struggled with depression, she didn’t have any support.
“We take care of each other if there’s cancer or diabetes or heart attacks,” Tanner said. “We rally around each other to help. But when it comes to mental health issues we don’t know what to do, and often don’t tell each other that we need help. Church is a place that can happen.”
Tanner also found that there were struggles with mental illness within his own family. He retired from the church in 2014, and said wherever he went next should be a church that worships with an openness to mental illness. He now attends at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and said the church supports this way of thinking.
“This is an important issue as much as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and housing the homeless — all of the social issues that churches try to help with,” Tanner said.
According to NAMI High Country, its all-volunteer group works tirelessly to raise awareness and supply essential education, advocacy and support group programs for people in the High Country affected by mental illness. It invites the public to take part in its programs and to join as volunteers. For more information, contact Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit NAMI High Country’s website at www.namihighcountry.org.