With mental illness now affecting one in four Americans in any given year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the acronym “NAMI” (which stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness), is becoming increasingly familiar. The organization educates, equips and empowers individuals, families and communities about issues related to mental health. Now, a lesser-known but national NAMI initiative known as FaithNet has come to Broward County, Florida, the site of the Elements Behavioral Health program The Recovery Place (TRP). FaithNet resources churches and other faith groups on issues of mental illness and addiction—and TRP employee Anthony Acampora is Broward FaithNet’s very first coordinator.
Faith and Recovery from Mental Illness
NAMI FaithNet, as described on its web page, “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.” The program seeks to build partnerships between faith communities and the mental health profession in order to raise awareness about the problem of mental illness.
“This has been an area that I feel has been overlooked for far too long,” says Acampora, who is Chaplain Community Liaison at The Recovery Place and sits on the board of NAMI. “The reality is the church is the first place many people who suffer with mental health issues go to for help, support and spiritual guidance, so regardless of the denomination the church should be equipped to provide comfort and assistance to these members of their congregations.”
Acampora believes this type of partnership between NAMI and the faith community is crucial to making a difference in the lives of those who suffer from mental illness. He and colleague Jonathan Benz, the director of TRP’s Christian rehab program Three Strands, have been hosting “spiritual care luncheons” where clergy and members of the faith community can hear from guest speakers like Pompano Beach Mayor Lamar Fisher, who spoke last week to a full room of clergy and clinicians.
Resources for Churches on Mental Illness
The first FaithNet committee meeting took place last month at the office of NAMI-Broward. Eleven were in attendance, thanks to Acampora’s coalition building from contacts across the mental health, church and law enforcement sectors. Members of the FaithNet committee have begun to present to local area churches, providing them with articles, bulletins and other materials on mental illness.
This new FaithNet chapter has at its disposal a range of already-developed NAMI-Faithnet resources: “Bridges of Hope” is a three-part presentation to clergy and faith groups about mental illness; “Reaching Out to Faith Communities” is a four-part self-instruction training designed to equip NAMI leaders and members for sharing their story and raising awareness among faith communities; and other online resources and suggested reading and inspiration for clergy and their congregations.
“NAMI FaithNet outreach and resources are most helpful in encouraging churches to become more supportive and welcoming of their members with mental illness and their families,” says Jerry Fulenwider, who serves as a lay Eucharistic minister and lector in the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of West Texas.
Church and the Stigma of Mental Illness
The FaithNet initiative faces obstacles, one of which remains the stigma of mental illness, according to church members like Pat George, in Ankeny, Iowa. George was one of a number of people from Ankeny First United Methodist Church who, in partnership with NAMI, have provided a safe space for learning about mental illness and caring for those who suffer from the disease. George told The Des Moines Register last fall, “we have a long way to go” in removing the stigma.
Acampora mentions other challenges to the mission of FaithNet, such as a subtle but oft-existing mutual distrust between the church and the clinical world. For example, “Pastors may feel that their congregations will in some way question their faith and leadership if they become involved with mental health professionals,” Acampora says. “This is why I think it is so important to build bridges between the faith communities and the mental health field in general.”
To learn more about FaithNet and how to be part of it, go to www.nami.org.