When times are hard, many people turn to their faith for strength and comfort.
But in the wake of the recession, growing awareness of mental health issues, and the loss of about half the state’s funding for mental health services over the past five years, faith communities have begun to see something different—people seeking help for mental health crises.
The shift has left many faith leaders at a loss, says Karen MacDonald, faith community engagement manager for Tucson’s Interfaith Community Services.
“Probably the most poignant interaction we had with a faith leader, about a year or so ago before we started this whole effort, was when a second person in their congregation took their own life," she recalls. "He said to us: what are we not doing?”
Faith communities have always played a role in mental health. National surveys have consistently shown that more people turn to their clergy when they experience a mental health issue than to psychiatrists or doctors.
But the clergy may not always know how to respond.
MacDonald saw a growing desire among southern Arizona’s faith leaders to learn more about mental illness, and she felt compelled to help.
She started by organizing the state’s first conference on faith communities and mental illness in April 2012. It sold out, packing its venue with more than 450 people eager for answers.
ICS continues to hold forums on mental health topics and offers a mental illness resource kit for any faith community that asks for one.
For MacDonald, who is herself an ordained minister, fighting the stigma that surrounds mental illness is part of being true to her faith.
“For me, it’s imperative that communities and people of faith be who they say they are," she says, "and that is a place of compassion and support and growth for anybody who would come. The originators of all of our faiths teach us that.”
But the push to make faith communities more aware of mental health issues and more welcoming to those who live with them isn’t just coming from faith leaders. It’s also growing out of the congregations themselves.
At St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, church member Karen Andrews is bringing bipolar disorder out of the shadows.
“The stigma can only be broken with knowledge and with compassion, and that’s what’s happening here at St. Andrews church,” says Andrews.
Andrews has struggled with bipolar disorder from early childhood on. For decades, she kept it under wraps, managing her mood swings on her own while working as a nurse and raising a family, she says. Then a crisis forced her to seek help--and led to a diagnosis at long last. With a diagnosis, Andrews was finally able to get treatment and find stability.
Now she wanted to share what she’d learned with others. She sought a home for the support group she envisioned, one that would actually teach the coping skills that had helped her make peace with her bipolar disorder.
That was when she found St. Andrews.
"One Sunday, we were getting ready to walk out after service and Pastor Carla Williams ... came up to us, and just started talking with us," Andrews recalls. "She was interested in knowing about our previous church experiences, and I had just mentioned that I had pretty recently done a support group for people who had bipolar disorder. And her eyes got big and she said 'Really?' and she began to tell me about the caring ministry they have here at St. Andrews, and that one of their concerns here is finding a way to reach out to those who have mental illness."
The 11-week course is now in its second year, and interest in it is growing.
St. Andrews pastor Carla Williams says the program has become a way for the church to reach out and better serve the community.
“It raised our awareness that we really are a place where people come looking for comfort, I’m sure they’re looking for hope," Williams says. "Oftentimes, mental illnesses drive people into hopelessness, despair and suicide, and the Gospel is the gospel of hope.”
Hope is now Karen Andrews’ mission, she says.
"Whenever we see somebody who has a mental illness, we have a special calling to reach out, because they are God’s children, just as I am, just as you are,” she says.
For Andrews, answering that calling is the greatest expression of faith.