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Opening Doors to Healing

By Stephanie Corkett, NAMI Communications Intern

Rabbi Sonya Starr, a member of the Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia, Md., has been working within her congregation to educate about mental illness and reduce stigma about those living with mental illness.

Rabbi Starr believes that in a predominantly Christian country, even in the secular world, there are Christian assumptions that can block people from healing. Rabbi Starr doesn’t feel like this is only Jewish specific problem but one that affects other minority religions as well.

At CJC and other congregations she has worked with, Rabbi believes that people who are living with a mental illness and are already involved within a faith community will experience that congregation’s support and willingness to listen to struggles as well as make visits to the hospital. She admits that even in progressive congregations people can be judgmental and ignorant of the causes of mental illness. There is a lot of blaming the family that still goes on in our communities. Rabbi Starr also believes that the toll mental illness takes on families is not fully understood or supported.

But, “People living with a mental illness who are not currently members of a congregation face a more difficult time if they are looking to join a faith community,” Starr admits. “In general, the world is not as educated as it could be about people living with mental illnesses, they don’t completely understand the burden that affects the person in question.”

With a lack of public knowledge about mental illness the possibility of stigma can occur. Starr explains, “Parishioners don’t understand how episodes work or how persons with mental illness can be calm in one instance and then erupt into anger instantly.” This lack of knowledge creates unintentional stigmas that are damaging.

Rabbi Starr understands the reluctance that may occur for those living with a mental illness to join a faith community. Rabbi Starr’s advice for the Jewish faith begins internally. She suggests self-reflection, “To understand mental illness, as a physical illness as well, and to try to understand societal prejudices that restrict services they need.” She explains that, “Mental illness doesn’t mean that these individuals are dangerous, although sometimes they are. We have to figure out how we can serve someone and also protect ourselves at the same time.”

The Jewish faith, as well as other non-Christian religions, has an extra burden of working with institutions in the Christian/Secular world to make them more understanding, receptive and appropriate for people who are living with mental illness. Rabbi Starr believes that tolerance of the mentally ill is not enough for the world. She says, “Tolerance isn’t the best word, you tolerate things you don’t like.” Rabbi Starr believes it isn’t our place to like or dislike mental illness but rather it’s something we need to work with, to research, and to establish organizations focused on treatment rather than punishment.

Within Rabbi Starr’s congregation, NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program has been used. Her congregation also works with an interfaith coalition as well as with the larger Jewish faith community to spread awareness as well as support for people living with mental illness as well as their families.

Starr’s own experience with her congregation’s response to the mental health programs and awareness has been positive. She says, “People have been very appreciative and they want to know how they can help.” With the positive response Starr understands that everything, “Isn’t always rosey and positive,” she explains that when people don’t fully understand mental illness, myths and stigmas need to be unraveled so the truth can be seen.

With education of mental illness and the reduction of stigma within the secular world as well as faith communities, Starr believes that people living with mental illness will feel more comfortable seeking help as well as joining faith communities to deepen their spirituality.

To learn more about faith-based recovery, visit NAMI FaithNet online .

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