By Moryt Milo
Sixteen years ago, Beth Am, a synagogue in Los Altos Hills, pioneered a mental health support group after one of its leaders, Jane Marcus, told her story about suffering from debilitating depression.
Her admission shocked the congregation. On the surface, Marcus had a successful career. She had earned a Ph.D. and was a loving mother of two children. How could she have severe depression? Her courage was an awakening for others who realized they were not alone.
That day seeded Beit R’fuah (House of Healing), a mental health ministry with a faith-based support group. Over the years, word spread about this safe, confidential, loving space where no one judged. Where stigma didn’t exist. Where sharing a personal story gave hope to an individual or family member in need of comfort or in the throes of a mental health crisis. People of all faiths and ethnicities would find their way through those welcoming doors.
Beit R’fuah decided to extend its reach and produced a documentary, released in 2021, to illustrate how faith-based mental health support groups can make a difference. Carol Irwin, one of Beit R’fuah’s co-founders, helped produce the film, which was screened at the Feb. 8, 2022 NAMI-Santa Clara County General Meeting.
After the showing, five panelists dove deeper into the subject of de-stigmatizing mental illness through mental health friendly congregations. The purpose was to show how the Beit R’fuah template could be applied to any faith-based community. The panelists included Bruce Feldstein, Barbara Zahner, Sharon Roth, Tony Sehgal, and Irwin.
The discussion explored ways clergy can work with families and individuals struggling with mental health problems. On the flipside, the group talked about the importance of helping clergy and faith leaders address their own mental health. The panelists talked about the importance of changing the way people with mental illness are perceived, the need to educate others and teach them to stop identifying individuals as the illness, and how to reframe the sentence as a person with an illness. The panelists reiterated that education was paramount in shattering taboos that surrounded mental health.
The film’s director, Tony Sehgal, suggested that creating a series of short-form videos or public service announcements would bring greater awareness. He added that film makers should demonstrate more sensitivity in the way they portray characters with mental illness on the screen.
Zahner, a retired chaplain and founding board member of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministries, described mental health support groups in faith-based communities as “a sacred container to hold that story.” Through her own experience of losing people who died by suicide, Zahner saw how a church support group offered people a sacred place to share.
She described “House of Healing as a sacred container” and added, “House of Healing is a beautiful model for families to have that place to talk to one another, and [knowing] you are not alone is vital.”
Other panelists like Roth, an assistant professor of nursing at Samuel Merritt University, former president of NAMI-Santa Clara County, and former vice president of NAMI San Mateo County, emphasized that faith-based support groups give you a sense of comfort, and sharing brings education and often an “aha” moment. Hearing from others who have lived experiences can be powerful.
Feldstein, a physician, chaplain, and founder and director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Services that serves Stanford Medicine, emphasized being in the moment with the individual who just experienced a mental health crisis. When he enters a room in the hospital, he wants the individual to understand he is not being judged. He will tell the individual, “I might not be able to understand or fix it, but I can join with you and accompany you.”
When Zahner speaks to someone, she will lead off with a simple question, “How is your spirit?” Then she is still and silent to allow the person to absorb the thought and answer when ready.
Over the years, the Beit R’fuah support group has evolved to include a healing circle and mindfulness meditation to help calm the group before individuals tell their stories, or, as Irwin said, “Bare their soul.”
“Through this journey, there is a place where you can speak to others going through the same thing you are going through,” Irwin said, “knowing you won’t be judged, that you don’t have to be embarrassed. You can be yourself in a house of worship.”
For more information about Beit R’Fuah or starting a support group please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
To watch the Beit R’fuah (House of Healing) documentary and panel discussion, click here.