Not by medicine alone mental-health systems pay allegiance to science, but faith communities also help patients in recovery

By Robert Landauer – editorial columnist for The Oregonian, October 13, 1998. Not available elsewhere online.

A woman obsesses on the biblical passage dealing with Ezekiel’s Wheel. She interprets it as a command to drive. She obeys until she crashes the car and is injured.

Another woman hears God announcing intimate details of her life on the radio. She is terrified and flees.

“I have committed the unforgivable sin,” a man cries to the Rev. Craig Rennebohm.

The mental -health chaplain to Seattle’s street community relates these encounters to make two points:

Mental illness is frequently expressed in religious terms.

Spiritual support is vital to help many people with mental disorders, as well as their families, cope with the illness and reduce the risk of relapses.

Oregon’s state mental -health workers help more than 70,000 people like these each year. Families and private agencies help thousands more. Yet the state’s most recent survey of behavior risks found almost 17,000 adult Oregonians who said they needed mental -health care but believed it was unavailable to them.

Public budgets won’t meet all needs. Most private support groups are financially thin.

This picture is dark but need not be bleak.

Several factors hint that the clergy and their congregants ought to be top prospects to help keep tabs on those in their faith communities who have mental illnesses.

Clergy outnumber psychiatrists by nearly 10-to-1. Religious leaders — persistent generalists in an era of professional specialization — are spread through all income, ethnic and racial communities, urban and rural, more equitably than health professionals.

Churches and synagogues bring enduring messages: No one is hopeless. No one is expendable. Everyone has infinite value.

The faith groups are spiritually grounded, community-based and service-oriented.

Every congregation eventually feels mental disorders’ effects. One family out of every five has a member who has directly experienced long-term, disabling mental illness, advocacy groups say. Many other family members will suffer shorter-term mental -health crises. Two-thirds of the mentally ill live at home. They are in the pews.

Yet few religious shepherds know how to help care for this part of their flocks.

That was the point of a Portland conference last week, “Mental Illness: Challenge to Faith Communities.” In it, people with mental illnesses helped the Archdiocese of Portland and other religious and mental -health organizations describe the need for help from the spiritual sector.

Faith communities are powerfully positioned to move Oregonians beyond indifference or tolerance. They can offer basic-needs aid (reassurance, sense of belonging, resource referrals, food), education, counseling and companionship that help families adjust to living with the illness. They can advocate for adequate care. Their actions can erase any stigma attached to mental disorders in their congregations.

A final thought: Separation of church and state doesn’t forbid all cooperation between public agencies and faith communities. Worship groups can help public mental -health workers by offering recreational, training, housing and respite services to their own members, their families and others.

As relationships develop, trained members of what some churches call “healing teams” could join case-management teams that public agencies form for clients needing heightened monitoring.

When might that be proper? A conference participant tells of new medicines that wonderfully quiet the demons that horrify him. But the prescriptions also silence “the voices of the angels that comfort me.”

Recruit a trained voice from his church to restore that comfort and aid his recovery.