National Alliance on Mental Illness
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NAMI FaithNet Newsletter: January 2012

In This Issue:

  • A Jewish Understanding of Renewed Relationships
  • NAMI STAR Center Faith-based Initiatives

A Jewish Understanding of Renewed Relationships

By Rabbi Sonja Starr, NAMI FaithNet Advisory Group

Religion in American culture is a unique, complex and dynamic institution. We like to think of the United States as a secular nation that is committed to a separation of “church” and state. Yet anywhere between 25 and 40 percent of all Christians attend church every weekend. Almost 90 percent of Jews are at one time in their lives affiliated with a synagogue. Christmas is a federal holiday. We like to say we are religious individuals in a secular country, but is that true? My experience says no.

During the last three years, I have had extensive personal experience with three very different Residential Treatment Centers (RTC). During this time I have been reminded of something I took for granted as a child growing up in Lancaster, Pa.: the United States of America is a Christian country regardless if there is an explicit mention of Jesus. Bias pervades our secular as well as religious institutions, including our medical professions. In order to provide people who are not Christian and battling mental illness a chance at a healthy recovery, I want to suggest that there is an urgent need for mental health professionals, including those who staff RTCs, to recognize that there is a Christian bias that undermines the likelihood of renewed health for Jews and all other non-Christians. My purpose in writing this article is to encourage dialogue and education and to urge advocacy for the needs and rights of all.

My son has spent time in RTCs in Maine, Utah and Maryland. In each place we, as people of faith, and members of a minority culture, as Jews, had to fight, advocate and negotiate for him to modify the Christian presumptions of the staff. "Isn't attending synagogue a choice in your family similar to playing soccer or not?" "Why would he have to keep kosher if he wants to return home?" "Couldn’t he decide that this is an archaic, meaningless ritual that is up for negotiation in your home?" "Sorry, we don't have enough staff to get him to synagogue for the Sabbath or the major holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur." "Can’t he just eat some ethnic food and attend church with all the other kids instead?" "Don’t worry; when he attends church, the minister doesn’t pray in Jesus' name—he just quotes from the Greek Bible." Some of these statements were explicit; some were implied. All were insidious and repeated and undermined any real discussion of family reunification. Coming home means being able to live cooperatively in one's family, which in our case is a Jewish environment as we understand it.

None of these insensitive comments compare with that of the underlying community-wide belief in the Christian story of the prodigal son. This story celebrates a father accepting without question or expectations a child who had emotionally abandoned if not abused him. Several of our son's therapists told us over and over again that it did not matter how many times he had abused us emotionally or physically; it was our duty as parents to accept him back without question or concern; after all, that is what God did, or at least how God was portrayed in this story.

I would like to offer a Jewish understanding of renewed relationships. Essential to a new beginning are the core values of teshuvah—repentance, acceptance and reunification. In Judaism, repentance/returning home is based on important steps. The first is that a person has to make amends for what they did; they have to fix the wrongs that can be fixed. The second is that they have to ask for forgiveness. Third, they come before God asking for the strength to change their behavior in the future. And finally, when faced with the opportunity to do the same unhealthy thing, they must make a healthy choice. I wonder where the mother in the prodigal son story is. I can only imagine that if I were her and my long lost son had returned, we would embrace, kiss, eat in private and then talk, heart-to-heart. What had he learned, what would be different this time, what demands will have to be fulfilled for him to return home? Only over time when he had proven that he had really done teshuvah would I then celebrate his true return home.

I am proud and fortunate to be an American. I am privileged and blessed to be a Jew. My son is lucky and fortunate to receive mental health services in the United States. But it could be better! Our society not only could acknowledge the strong connection between a healthy soul and a healthy person, but it could also find ways to strengthen all religious connections, not just Christian ones. Recently, I went to a local psychiatric ward. The room was completely decorated for Christmas: a tree, window decorations, and wreaths. In one isolated corner was a tiny menorah. Imagine what a scared, lonely, sick Jewish patient might feel as they entered this foreign place for the first time. That morning they attended a mandatory group where they were required to answer questions about Christmas, a Christmas trivia game.

Isn't it time that our mental health clinicians and providers find ways to genuinely respect and even celebrate our different spiritual expressions—not only the majority culture and the commercially available expressions, but also the deeply rooted beliefs of minority groups—and thus support the healthy reunification of families and allow healing and growth to take place?

NAMI STAR Center Faith-based Initiatives

By Philip Qualo, J.D., STAR Center Program Manager

The relationship between faith and mental health recovery is unique because it is entirely dependent on the individual. Spirituality is essentially a personal experience that can be shared with others in churches, synagogues, temples and other places of worship. Similarly, recovery is dependent on individual experience. That is why there are multiple accepted models of recovery. For example, some individuals are able to achieve recovery and wellness through individual therapy and medication. Others may forego the medication and prefer a peer support or group therapy setting.

For the faithful, a religious or spiritual path to recovery might be a preferred option. Throughout human history, religion and spirituality have shaped daily life and culture. Regardless of whether it refers to an ultimate reality or an experience solely involving human imagination, spirituality can be understood to offer great benefit in terms of meaning, purpose and vitality, especially if viewed broadly enough to include access to unlimited potential, energy and opportunity. Therefore many faith-based communities regard religion and spirituality as the ultimate recovery tool.

The NAMI STAR Center is committed to pursuing initiatives relevant to the faith-based communities. The STAR Center recently partnered with Deacon Donald Clark to conduct a teleconference titled Recovery and Wellness in African American Faith-based Communities: Building Relationships that Build Community. Deacon Clark educated participants on the many recovery resources offered by community African American churches. The recording is available for free from the STAR Center.

STAR Center is also preparing to release a self-help, peer support and service provider tool titled Multicultural Competence, Intense Spiritual Experience and Mental Health. This resource highlights the major findings from a STAR Center workshop regarding multicultural competence, intense spiritual experiences and mental health. It presents the recommendations developed participants from diverse backgrounds who met over two days using a consensus workshop process. The STAR Center will be widely distributing this tool free of charge as well as developing a training to enhance the contents in the coming months.

Learn more about the STAR Center's faith-based initiatives or contact STAR Center Program Manager Philip Qualo at or (703) 600-1114 for more information.

Editor's Note: The NAMI STAR Center was among an array of faith-related presenters at the 2011 NAMI National Convention. Readers are encouraged to bookmark the NAMI National Convention website section to learn more as the program for 2012 develops.

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