Spirituality can be a bridge between mental illness and science without proselytizing. This is the role of NAMI FaithNet.
Cindy McCalmont, an ordained United Methodist Minister for 15 years, is part of the NAMI Santa Clara County leadership team for FaithNet. She notes that FaithNet is not a religious network. The focus is to assist clergy and congregations of all faiths in mental health education and awareness. In doing so, FaithNet offers a seamless way to fold in spirituality for those who seek such comfort to ease their recovery.
“Just because someone becomes psychotic, faith leaders should not be afraid. We also explain this to the laity, who are often closest to those suffering and can bring understanding, support, and help,” Cindy said. “It’s both a bottom up and top-down approach to helping those struggling with mental health issues.”
FaithNet can help clergy in various ways. The team of outreach coordinators can provide suicide prevention training, teach how to recognize when someone is in distress, or help with de-escalation training when someone is showing symptoms—giving faith leaders and laity the tools needed to steer individuals toward treatment.
Equally important is the recovery. “Almost all of us are taught to defer and get the person the help they need, but we do not have adequate conversations on how to welcome the person back as they are recovering and still may have symptoms,” Cindy said.
Cindy understands this intimately after she experienced late onset adult anorexia at age 42. During her recovery, Cindy attained deep insight. “I was able to look at an individual as a whole person and not look at the person from the neck up when they had a mental health challenge. Nor are we simply a soul who is sitting in a congregation.”
Through a Santa Clara County Innovation Grant, FaithNet has 18 staffers. These part-time individuals work with various communities to reach those where stigma and shame have cultural roots. Vincent Ngo, who is studying to be a marriage and family therapist, is the Vietnamese outreach coordinator. The other five targeted communities include African-American, Latino, Korean, Filipino, and Chinese.
Changing the Culture
In Vincent’s community most Vietnamese are either Catholic or Buddhist. “On the Catholic side mental illness is viewed as a sign of weakness,” he said. “For Buddhists, it impacts your karma.” The importance of saving face weighs heavy in the culture as well. “I am Vincent, but I am also an extension of my family, which means Vietnamese families will do a lot to hide mental illness. It’s very shameful to the entire family,” he said. “But it makes me proud to see a shift with our younger generation.”
Still, there’s work to be done. Vincent wants to cut through the cultural barriers and shift perception with his community’s faith leaders. To be successful he needs to build relationships through conversation and breaking bread before tackling discussions on mental health. He makes the point that today’s faith leaders function as first responders.
“People go to their faith leader for help and these individuals don’t know what to do. Unwillingly they might make it worse by saying it will go away if you pray harder—so we want to reach out and offer them the tools and provide the education to help their parishioners with support and resources,” he said.
For outreach coordinators like Vincent, his work has been especially difficult due to COVID. So many people are struggling to just survive, he said. They are worried about life’s necessities, which make discussions on mental health secondary, even when needed. Still, he wants to find a way to recalibrate the scales. “Instead of people running away from someone with mental illness, we want them to walk towards the person and show support.”
Vincent wants people to view these diseases as a “casserole illness,” referencing the universal tradition of ringing an ill person’s doorbell with nourishment and companionship.
Eugene Doan, a member of St. Lucy’s Parish in Campbell, took on the role of mental health ministry and advocacy at the parish. He was inspired after watching the movie Angst, which raises awareness about anxiety, along with his introduction to NAMI. He launched a pray and support group called Hope and Healing. The group works through various issues including anxiety and isolation caused by COVID. Parishioners view the group as a safe venue. A place to openly discuss emotions. For now, meetings take place over Zoom.
Eugene plans to grow the group and invite others when the church can reopen and is not constrained by number limits. Currently, NAMI information, along with other mental health resources, can be found at the church’s entrance. Post-pandemic Eugene wants to bring the “In Our Own Voice” program to the church and wants to do a private screening of Angst at St. Lucy’s.
Although there is no silver bullet for mental health, Eugene said, we can improve the understanding in three ways: educate, advocate through hope and healing, and accompany through support.
“Most important, we need to look at mental health issues exactly the way we look at physical issues,” he said. “Why are we treating anything above the neck any differently than below the neck?”
Rabbi Melanie Aron would no doubt agree. Rabbi Aron, who leads Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, found NAMI when a family member approached her with concerns about their child who was exhibiting signs of mental illness and needed to be hospitalized. She later attended a Women’s Clergy Luncheon and met Cindy McCalmont at the NAMI-SCC office, which led to her involvement with FaithNet.
During COVID, Rabbi Aron has noticed a rise in loneliness and anxiety among her members as well. The synagogue decided to create a Helpline staffed by a small group of volunteer members who are healthcare professionals. When a member calls the Helpline, a volunteer calls back within 24 hours.
“The congregation is a special place because it brings together people of all ages, occupations, and that creates community,” Rabbi Aron said. “Getting clergy to incorporate this sense of community with those that may have mental health issues is very important.”
She does not, however, dismiss the importance of psychiatry, believing science and faith can find balance. The psychopharmacology aspect of psychiatry along with an individual’s faith community have a place in a person’s healing.
Rabbi Aron notes, faith has a lot to offer for those who also have a mental health challenge. “This is a community. Its rhythm and rituals and religious structure can be very helpful.”
To learn more about NAMI FaithNet, go to https://namisantaclara.org/classes/faith-net-2/ or call 408-453-0400 ext. 3035.