National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from FaithNet NAMI

NAMI FaithNet Newsletter: April 2012

In This Issue:

  • Key Ministry: Welcoming Youth and Their Families at Church
  • Faith, Creativity and Managing Recovery
  • May is Mental Health Month!

Key Ministry: Welcoming Youth and Their Families at Church

By Stephen Grcevich, M.D., president, Key Ministry and child adolescent psychiatry in private practice in Chagrin Falls, Ohio

Key Ministry believes it is not okay for youth living with mental illness and their families to face barriers to participation in worship services, educational programming and service opportunities available through local churches.

The church represents an area of American culture in which a lack of understanding of the causes and the needs of families impacted by mental illness pose a significant barrier to full inclusion. A study published recently by investigators at Baylor University examined the relationship between mental illness and family stressors, strengths and faith practices among nearly 5,900 adults in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations.

The presence of mental illness in a family member has a significant negative impact on both church attendance and the frequency of engagement in spiritual practices. When asked what help the church could offer families, the need for support for mental illness was ranked second out of 47 possibilities by the 27 percent of families surveyed who are impacted by mental illness, but forty-second by unaffected families in the church.

Key Ministry was established to help connect families of children with "hidden disabilities"—significant emotional, behavioral, developmental or neurologic conditions lacking outwardly apparent physical symptoms—with local churches. The hidden disability that poses a barrier to church participation for the vast majority of youth and families we serve is mental illness.

Our team at Key Ministry is seeking to address the fact that families with a child with mental illness are less likely to be active participants in a local church. To help individual churches pursue families with children living with mental illness, Key Ministry suggests three general strategies: serve them; create welcoming environments for the children, their siblings and their parents; and include them in the activities vital to the life of the church.

One challenge churches face in serving families with children living with mental illness is that many families have had negative experiences with churches in the past. For example, a parent of two boys treated for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) expressed to me that "people in the church feel they can judge when a disability ends and bad parenting begins." One of the strategies that we have found most effective for churches seeking to reach out to these families in their communities is having regularly scheduled high-quality respite care available for free.

Through a partnership with Key Ministry, Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati has launched to provide like-minded churches everywhere access to respite training for staff and volunteers. Networks of churches offering free respite have been developed in the Cleveland-Akron area and in the greater Cincinnati/northern Kentucky area. Networks will be launching in Northwest Pennsylvania and Des Moines, Iowa in the coming months. We are exploring ways of making the initial respite training available to churches everywhere over the Internet.

One church we serve has developed a model for "relational respite," in which small groups within the church will adopt a family with a child experiencing a physical disability. Families within the small group take turns in providing home-based respite care and developing relationships that facilitate natural systems of support.

Other churches are reaching out to their communities by providing after-school tutoring for at-risk kids with mental health, behavioral or learning issues in low-income neighborhoods. Key Ministry was recently contacted for assistance by a church that has established an urban ministry campus with a charter school for kids who have fallen three or more grade levels hehi9nd their peers in reading achievement scores. We were asked to train volunteers who will serve as parent advocates, ensuring that students receive appropriate Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and Section 504 accommodations when they are reintegrated into public schools. (Editor's note: for more information on IEPs, Section 504 and other information addressing the education needs of children with mental illness, visit the NAMI Child and Adolescent Action Center.) In our experience, church leaders often express reluctance in launching programs to serve families of children living with mental illness. They are concerned that the unmet needs of these families are so great that their churches will be overwhelmed by the numbers of new families attending weekend worship events. Key Ministry helps address such concerns by training and equipping children's ministry staff and volunteers to welcome and include children living with mental illness and their families who want to participate in church activities.

Key Ministry helps pastors, leaders and volunteers problem solve on ways of doing ministry consistent with their church's culture and strengths. We also offer help to churches by designing physical environments more friendly to families of children living with mental illness and sensory processing issues. Much of our training programs are developed in response to requests from churches that are trying to respond to a specific need. Last year, we scheduled a special training for churches in Cincinnati after they requested training to better serve kids at risk for aggressive behavior.

We also offer consultation to individual churches through video or phone conferencing to help craft solutions when families of children living with mental illness or other hidden disabilities present unique challenges. Our staff and volunteers regularly offer live observation and consultation at churches in our home areas. No church is too small to benefit from our help. While some churches opt to establish stand-alone programs to serve families impacted by mental illness and other special needs, we are also experienced in helping churches include children and families into existing church programs.

All training, consultation, resources and supports provided by Key Ministry to churches is offered free of charge. Families of children living with mental illness encounter enough obstacles in attending church that the cost of equipping chur5ches to more effectively welcome and serve them should not pose an additional barrier.

Our team is looking forward to hearing from NAMI members and church staff and volunteers interested in doing more to transform churches in their communities into places where families of children living with mental illness will feel welcome. Please check out our website at and our two official blogs, Church4EveryChild and Diving for Pearls. Also, "like" us on Facebook for announcements of future training events.

To learn more about Key Ministry, contact Dr. Stephen Grcevich at

Best Practices in Mental Illness Ministries

Editor's note: Earlier this year, NAMI awarded small mini-grants to NAMI Affiliates to support their local faith outreach efforts and to gain understanding of what materials, supports and initiatives are achieving success in the grassroots. NAMI Greater Orlando was one of the grantees. Following is a summary of their approach at reaching out to faith communities in support of enhanced awareness for individuals and families affected by mental illness.

By Rev. Barton Buchanan and Donna Helsel

NAMI Greater Orlando recognizes that people who live with mental illness along with their families typically struggle alone because there are so many taboos and stigmas attached to the condition. The Rev. Barton Buchanan and Donna Helsel recently lead a workshop illustrating how a congregation can provide a safe place for these individuals and their families to find support and healing in their faith community. Their efforts continue to other faith communities in the Greater Orlando area through this initiative.

Through the presentation, Pastor Barton and Donna shared how local groups like NAMI can help their clergy and congregation reach out to people that many faith communities reject.

Do these communities reject those with mental illness because they lack compassion? It appears the rejection is because the clergy and congregation are not at all equipped to help them. Through this effort, Pastor Barton of the Windermere Union Church UCC shared how his congregation, in partnership with NAMI, has reached out to those who live with mental illness in his congregation. Donna Helsel shared with the church how NAMI can be a valuable resource to teach, equip and minister to people affected by mentally illness and their families in their faith community.

NAMI Greater Orlando recognizes that through working together, NAMI and faith communities can make a huge difference in the lives of people who need a supportive faith community and who may also need NAMI, helping them recognize that there is hope. There are people and communities of faith that genuinely care.

Reverend Barton Buchanan is the senior pastor of the Windermere Union Church UCC where he has served there for almost seventeen years. He and his congregation have been intentionally ministering to those who live with mental illness and their families for three years now and his congregation has witnessed God's blessings and healing hope to courageous people who are in need of a supportive faith community. Pastor Barton looks forward to sharing how other individuals and congregations can be a part of this vital ministry.

Donna Helsel found NAMI Greater Orlando when her daughter as a teen was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After taking NAMI's Family-to-Family class with her husband, she was determined to help others as she was helped with this class. Donna became a Family-to-Family teacher as well as a state trainer, a family support group facilitator, a CIT presenter and participant on the NAMI Provider Education teaching team. After 20 years as business owner in Central Florida, Donna Helsel now works part-time as an office administrator which allows her time to volunteer in the community promoting mental health awareness through her role as Education Director for NAMI Greater Orlando.

May is Mental Health Month!

This month, join the thousands of NAMI members and supporters—families, individuals, friends and businesses—who come together to celebrate mental illness recovery, to honor those who have lost their lives to mental illness and to combat stigma, promote awareness and advocate for others. Check out the NAMI FaithNet site for resources and materials that can help you plan an effective campaign in your community.


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